Education integral to solving manufacturing industry’s skills shortage

26th June 2019 By: Simone Liedtke - Writer

Solving the skills challenge in South Africa’s manufacturing industry and working towards its solution will require not only the identification of the skills needed now to meet short-term demand, but also the identification of the skills that will be needed in the future, a panel of speakers, moderated by African Innovators’ Sherrie Donaldson, at the Manufacturing Indaba, agreed.

The skills challenge, Donaldson explained to delegates on Wednesday, was not unique to South Africa but was rather a result of a globally shrinking manufacturing skills pool.

This is further exacerbated by people entering the industry not having the required basic education and skills levels needed to work in manufacturing, as well as the industry’s “lack of status”.

To resolve this, Donaldson said coordinated and collaborative strategies between business and government were needed to develop the skills ecosystem in South Africa, in particular.

This will, in turn, be dependent on reform at all levels of the education ecosystem in the country.

In this respect, National Cleaner Production Centre South Africa’s Wynand van der Merwe told delegates that entities would need to be more involved in order for government to be more responsive to the industry’s skills development needs.

“Professional bodies need to be far more involved in the skills development and transfer bodies . . . but there seems to be a disconnect between the professional bodies and [government] entities,” he noted, lamenting that, unfortunately, the skills development and transfer process in South Africa was “fundamentally flawed”.

Despite dubbing the process as “flawed”, he believed there were ways, through structured engagement, with professional bodies as a relevant link, to improve this.

The Rail Road Association’s (RRA’s) Mesela Nhlapo, meanwhile, agreed that private sector collaboration with government would be key to working together “in the interest of South Africa”.

“For me, the relationship between government and the private sector is important and it has been proven that collaboration . . . works. Unfortunately, in South Africa, we tend to work in silos as the private sector . . . which causes bottlenecks,” she elaborated.

This relationship, however, was dependent on the private sector’s attitude towards government, she highlighted, adding that, with the help of the government, “more can be done”.

Touching on education, she said South Africa had to “rethink [the pass rate]” and focus instead on the quality of education being provided, instead of a province’s high matriculant pass rate.

However, while Izibani Consultancy’s Dr Yves Guenon agreed with Nhlapo on the need for the private sector and government to work together, he told delegates that the problem was rather with the foundation phase of the country’s education system.

“[South Africa] needs to come back to the [educational] foundation, and rebuild it as soon as possible.”

Focusing on the skills needed for South African manufacturing to improve, International Finance Corporation’s Ken Osei told delegates at the Indaba that the industry needed a combination of hard and soft skills, at different levels.

Stellenbosch University's Professor Andre van der Merwe agreed with Osei, but lamented the difficulty in teaching soft skills.

“We need to provide people with the environment where they can learn the soft skills and be in direct contact with future employers.”

As an example, he said Stellenbosch University insisted on students doing internships and submitting reports thereon – which had benefits both in terms of developing soft skills and report writing.

Van der Merwe further stressed that there were two levels of understanding when it came to skills development and education, explaining that while the basic skills platform needed to be available to everybody, the threshold onset of mathematical and technical skills development was government’s responsibility.

Osei, however, added that while there were certain aspects of the education system that remained the responsibility of government, private sector investors could become more involved in education – although, owing to certain pieces of legislation, there were limitations on what the private sector could do, despite the skills challenge.

In this respect, Osei called for certain reforms to enable the flow of capital, from the private sector, to enable the sector to create grounds for a breakthrough.

“If we’re going to make a breakthrough, there’s a need for certain reforms that enable the flow of capital into these sectors. Part of it has to do with the flow of capital into the space of education itself, to complement, and not substitute, what government does.

“And provided there’s capital, [the private sector] can play a role in helping to shape the education landscape,” he said.