Despite the chemicals industry being the fifth hardest-hit industry globally as a result of supply chain challenges, oil price fluctuations and deglobalisation, the disruption has “primed” the industry for new business models, new partnerships and a new approach to problem-solving, says Chemical Industries Education and Training Authority (Chieta) CEO Yershen Pillay.
“The dawn of the Covid-19 pandemic has turned disruption on its head. We are not just innovating for competitive advantage, we are innovating for survival. This latest disruption, which necessitates technological innovation, has given us the opportunity to reshape the chemicals sector,” he adds.
Across industries, there have emerged new ways to coordinate, collaborate and communicate, which have been dominated by technology. “Innovation today is characterised by the collaboration between increasingly powerful machinery and digital technology and the unique creative potential of the human being.”
And while the “rat race” has been focussing on investing in the latest and greatest technological innovation, it is society’s investment in the human being which must now be the focus, he says.
In this regard, Pillay says the chemicals industry has experienced a re-imagining of work, workforces and workplaces.
This means the chemicals industry has a chance to renew its focus on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, such as economic growth (Goal 8), responsible consumption and production (Goal 12), climate action (Goal 13) and industry, innovation and infrastructure (Goal 9).
“To achieve these goals, we need to ensure we have the skills to take advantage of new opportunities, to continue driving innovation, and to be truly globally competitive,” he notes.
The chemicals industry cannot expect to meet the demands of the new world order without investing in people, says Pillay.
Therefore, sector education training authorities, such as Chieta, have the responsibility to assess the rising skills demands and set plans into action to address these demands. “I believe that filling tomorrow’s skills deficit starts with science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM] education, today.”
Here, Pillay says, Chieta has increased its focus on STEM education initiatives with the goal of developing the next generation of problem solvers, critical thinkers and innovative leaders for the chemical industries.
For example, he points out that Chieta plans to ensure that every corner of South Africa has a fully automated smart skills centre by 2025. These centres will include spaces for training to be conducted in augmented reality and virtual reality.
The first of these is already under development in the Saldanha Bay Industrial Development Zone. This centre, which will focus on basic digital skills, is aimed at addressing the digital skills divide in the district and at helping surrounding businesses and rural community members to learn technology-related skills.
“We are also leading the way with new and innovative skills programmes such as our recently launched robotics programme in partnership with the South West Gauteng Technical and Vocational Education and Training College,” says Pillay.
For school-level youth, Chieta’s Beyond 4.0 STEM initiative is designed to ignite curiosity, foster innovation and create a climate in which the youth can see themselves as future leaders.
“By partnering with our skills development providers, we want to equip South Africans with the important skills they will need to take advantage of our rapidly changing landscape.
“If we see disruption through the lens of opportunity, we have the power to reshape the industry towards sustainable economic development,” he says.