With the South African Government renewing its commitment to ensure stability following a series of economic outlook downgrades by global ratings agencies – while a major shift in political leadership saw newly instated President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address make sizable pledges towards bolstering higher education, in response to continued social and political turmoil surrounding the topic – leaders of the nation’s crucial industries are weighing in with an important message for graduates and the business sector.
While universities remain under siege and a generation suffers the effect of the highest unemployment levels in 15 years, a holistically beneficial, and – perhaps more importantly – achievable key to many of our gravest concerns is at our fingertips yet is sadly underrepresented.
“One would be hard-pressed to present a solution which would outweigh the all-too unexplored possibilities presented by vocational and artisanal training in South Africa,” says founder and MD of The Rand Group (TRG), Paul van Heerden, whose organisation specialises in advancing quality standards and innovation in the South African engineering sector, serving long-standing customers including the likes of Anglo American, Sasol Group, Samancor and various other well-known names.
Having been an active advocate of vocational skills training for two decades since the inception of his business, van Heerden explains that what began as a firm resolution early on to meaningfully invest in their community as a sustained key company policy, had soon clearly demonstrated to the engineering sector, among various other fields, its powerful potential offered graduates and industries alike.
“It is imperative that new entrants to the workplace, such as our recent matriculants and university hopefuls, are presented as well with the enormous advantages of pursing vocational training,” he says, adding, “In fact, there is a world-wide effort to draw attention to this area of education, which has somehow taken a back-seat to formal degrees in spite of a range of distinct benefits which are directly applicable to the obstacles faced by young South Africans, understandably seeking tertiary education opportunities.”
To provide perspective, van Heerden explains that technical trade and vocational qualifications include a broad range of practical skills, for which the current availability of skills is incredibly scarce in comparison to the massive – and growing – demand for these, both locally and abroad.
“More specific to growing industries like engineering, these include individuals certified in a vast range of expertise, from welding and tube fitting to electrical and mechanical, among – only part of the wider market needs within sectors such as Mining, Petrochemical and Iron and Steel, to name but a few,” he says.
The enormous market need, reflected in reports indicating that local industry demand alone requires approximately 30 000 qualified artisans per year to enter the market, but indicates vocational training currently reaches an average of 18 000. “Key considerations, therefore, are a vocational trainee’s ability to earn while they work thanks to a plethora of apprentice roles available, an expectation of almost guaranteed permanent employment upon qualifying, as well as an immediate earning potential average of between R20 000 and R25 000 – a compensation almost unheard of amongst entry-level degree holders entering an over-saturated corporate environment,” he continues.
“Universities have their undeniable merits to many South Africans, providing theoretical knowledge within specific academic and professional areas, resulting in obtaining a degree, as opposed to the practical skills gained through artisan training,” van Heerden says. “However, its many challenges include a lengthy time investment, the current uncertainty and unrest brought on by conflict and dissatisfaction between activist groups and authorities, and is very often accompanied by significant student loan debt.”
Added to this, as stated recently by Sean Jones, chief executive of black empowered Artisan Training Institute, universities are seeing a current failure rate at of around 50%, severely impeding viability for employment in their chosen field. “It is time to dispel the myth that a university degree is superior in any way to a trade-based skill, as these significance factors create an undeniable case for the opposite.”
While economic and employment statistics may look grim, van Heerden advises that not only can corporate investment in vocational training development provide invaluable prospects for unemployed South Africans, empowering individuals with invaluably globally-demanded skillsets, but also presents local industries with numerous opportunities which benefit business and boost profitability. “It has become not only a moral obligation for businesses to act in supporting local industries, but a strategic imperative for business success.”
“Skills development and the creation of jobs directly increase confidence in South Africa’s fiscal stability and the attracting of investors in our industries – which all business sectors rely on for sustaining a viable marketplace for profitability. This makes it the business of businesses to help themselves by helping their communities.” Van Heerden highlights that the stark reality of the economic issues faced by South Africa requires concerted and urgent action, particularly in the area of education and skills development – as described in Statistic SA’s most recent Quarterly Labour Force Survey, which shows close to 28% of our workforce seeking jobs, while a staggering 58% of young South Africans are unemployed.
“Artisan skills have been identified as one of the country’s most important areas of need,” says van Heerden. “Engineering specifically is critical in infrastructural expansion and the development of various sectors in South Africa, driving further need for an already scarce availability of skilled labour. This is but one of many examples of a key challenge which can be easily addressed through hands on training, facilitated directly by business.”
In light of the many benefits of direct training, TRG has established their very own dedicated in-house training facility. The Rand Skills Enhancement Centre which is soon to be opened to a wider student pool, currently provides employees, with the opportunity to develop skills in engineering trades through a program that delivers nationally recognised competencies, including merSETA accreditation for electricians, welders, instrumentation tube fitting and analyser technicians – simultaneously providing TRG with the skills they require within their organisation.
Further to this, TRG has been working towards driving the recognition of an entirely new category of artisan accreditation, which will ensure that this particular skillset is properly and effectively taught for the betterment of the industry, while those working in this area are able to access increased security and opportunities.
Van Heerden advises that businesses requiring artisan skills need look no further than their surrounding communities to discover the potential benefits of a large-scale pool of ready, able and willing human capital. “Aside from the tax and business levy benefits for businesses, there is also a definite advantage in the ability to train individuals for specific functions that are required within an organisation.”
He explains that investing in this area not only empowers individuals within the workforce, but allows the company to access exactly the skills that they require relatively easily and efficiently, as the knowledge and information required for qualifying in these areas of skill exists already within the company.
“There are also a vast number of vocational education and training facilities available across the country, which are easily accessible and require a relatively short time investment,” he continues. “Typically, costs associated with these facilities are kept at a minimum to ensure accessibility for low income groups, while the South African Government also offers various initiatives which subsidise fees. To this end, businesses who facilitate training directly have been seeing a high return on investment once individuals become qualified, and begin contributing valuable skills to the company.”
Supporting training and education initiatives can also make local businesses more attractive to investors and potential partners, who are increasingly prioritising socially conscious practices when seeking potential collaborators. Noting an uptake in skills project investment by countries such as China and Japan, van Heerden adds that collaborating with these programmes presents valuable partnership and relationship opportunities for local businesses. “These countries have enormous investment power, as well as needs which can be met through the use of South African products and services.”
Van Heerden encourages other organisations requiring specialised vocational skills to consider training and upskilling of an employed labour – to benefit society as well as part of a sound business strategy. “When South Africans begin working together with government and the organisations focused on tackling unemployment and poverty in South Africa, the ripple effect of this win-win action will begin to create waves of positive change,” van Heerden concludes.