South Africa has to start creating skills

It is not enough merely to create jobs, says Henley Africa Business School dean and director Jon Foster-Pedley; South Africa has to start creating skills – and a key part of that is to bring back the system of apprenticeships where people can literally learn on the job.

Professor Foster-Pedley, who was a guest on Jon Perlman’s show on Talk Radio 702, says big announcements by political leaders are ultimately empty gestures because they set targets without the mechanisms to achieve them. What they should be doing instead, he says, is creating much smaller projects that can be replicated and scaled. This way people can be given the necessary skills and the economy can be developed.

“We’ve got massive unemployment, but we also have a massive number of people who are not accessing education and training. They can’t develop the skills, so they become locked in poverty which is further exacerbated by their loss of self-confidence.”

Building capability, he says, will inexorably lead to building businesses, which in turn will create even more job opportunities.

“You can’t build an economy in a country such as this with the highest Gini co-efficient in the world (the disparity between the haves and the have nots), with the kind of education they are receiving. Several years ago, the OECD said that only 55% of the current workforce have the skills they require, yet for us to grow as a country we will have to dramatically change the economy.”

But South Africa cannot transform its economy if it does not have a skilled workforce. Countries like Vietnam and Thailand, which have totally transformed their economies over the last 25 years into highly diversified ones characterised by high tech and workers with complex skills, have highly functioning state education systems. South Africa’s state education system is dysfunctional and the economy has not evolved over the last three decades.

What South Africa needs, Foster-Pedley says, is a commitment to education, underpinned by a 10 to 15-year vision, which will also start giving people different skills such as management and the ability to get things done across different departments in every organisation. Not only the recipients will benefit, but the country will too as the level of professionalism increases across all sectors.

A possible answer, says Foster-Pedley, could be to copy the degree apprenticeship scheme that operates in Britain which provides an alternative route to higher education, by creating skills – especially in a country where the TVET system is failing through a lack of accountability and sub-standard management of institutions.

“What happens in the UK is that every company with an annual turnover in excess of GBP £3-million pays a percentage of that to the government which then goes into a central fund. The company can then employ people for 30 to 40 hours a week on condition that they go to university. The students get 95% subsidies and a salary, while the company gets the salary back – as well as a worker.

“So, what’s happening is that you get people doing bachelor and masters degrees while building real skills in real time in real life environments. You can’t just build skills by creating employment, you have to build skills and professionalism so that things can be done well.”

The problem in South Africa, he says, is that the scale of unemployment, particularly youth unemployment is so great that it induces panic in people who are genuinely keen and committed to resolving it which in turn leads to the development of initiatives that are premised on urgency rather than effectiveness.

Addressing the problem means understanding that it cannot be quickly resolved – and certainly not through a single initiative – instead it needs to balance urgency with effectiveness and sustainability.

“We tend to think individually in this country; that by building our own careers like a rising tide we will lift others. What we need instead is a collectivist approach; to help the person next to us, by thinking less about how well we might be doing but rather think more about the health of the system and the society we are living in.”

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Henley Business School
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