Growing our economy and expanding employment is probably the most important challenge facing us as a country. This is essential in order to ensure that our people can make a living for themselves, have the satisfaction of contributing to the wealth of the society in which they live, and pass on to their children a positive attitude to work and to society as a whole.
Without being able to work, people cannot fulfil their potential as human beings. Social grants help to keep people alive or assist them in times of need. But they are no substitute for employment, whether employment in an organisation or self-employment.
Employment creation is essential for creating social stability. People who don’t have a reasonable hope of finding work – or creating their own sustainable livelihoods – have little to lose and have little stake in maintaining a stable society. Research shows that we currently have over 3 million people between the ages of 18 and 24 who are not in employment, education or training, and we probably have a larger number in this position between the ages of 25 and 35. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the future stability and prosperity of our society depends on the creating opportunities for these young people.
Creating employment opportunities depends on many things including, for example, the level of economic growth, the structure of the economy, government policies, policies of employers in the public and private sectors, and the match between the skill needs of the economy and the skills of the workforce.
Government believes that the state should play a central role in economic and social development as set out in the New Growth Path. The South African government is currently taking some very important steps to this end. In his State of the Nation address this year, the President announced government’s intention to initiate a major infrastructure development programme. Implementation of this programme has already begun and the programme will be rolled out in the next few years.
We expect it to make an important impact on job creation and providing opportunities for economic development. Just as important is the government’s intention to strengthen our industry and especially to develop manufacturing through local procurement and other forms of stimulus.
Tourism has been growing in recent years – a major achievement given the economic problems in Europe – and we hope to continue strengthening it. The Green economy is another area where we see large potential for job creation and economic growth, including developing sustainable energy sources, promoting efficient use of energy, developing environmentally-friendly ways to provide grow food, provide transport, construct buildings, and so on.
Government’s efforts to win the international competition to host most of the Square Kilometre Array, have recently put South Africa on the map as far as space science is concerned, this will result in opportunities to significantly develop our scientific capacity which will no doubt also have economic and spin-off effects.
Crucial to all these processes, is the role of education and training. While education and training on their own cannot create economic growth or employment, it is also true that economic growth in a modern economy cannot take place without the necessary knowledge and skills. If we are going to fulfil our objectives we must develop a skilled workforce capable to take on the necessary tasks.
Government is keenly aware of this and has set up structures and developed policies to ensure that this happens.
My own department, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), was established in 2009 as the lead government department in this respect. The DHET is responsible for universities, FET colleges, adult education, the skills-levy institutions (the 21 SETAs and the NSF) as well as regulatory and quality assurance institutions such as SAQA, the Council for Higher Education and the QCTO.
The government has also established a South African Human Resources Development Council chaired by the Deputy President and administered by the DHET. It brings representatives from government (including several ministers), private business, state-owned enterprises and the labour movement. Its purpose is to have oversight over and give advice regarding education and skills development policy for the country at a national level. The overall aim is to have an framework, agreed to by the major social partners, to guide human resource development, whether in the public or private sector.
My department has conceived its main objective as building an expanded, high quality and integrated post-school system. Our initial vision has been set out in the Green Paper for a Post-School Education and Training as is currently being revised on the basis of public comment and will be published early next year as a White Paper. The Green Paper sets a target for expanding the university system from approximately 900 000 students last year to 1.5 million by 2030 and vastly increasing enrolments in colleges and other post-schools institutions to 4 million by the same date.
We also want to ensure greater synergy and articulation between the various post school institutions, so that universities work together with the Further Education and Training (FET) colleges, train college lecturers, do more research on vocational training and ensure that FET college graduates can enter university programmes.
SETAs have been directed to work more closely with public colleges and universities, providing funding for occupationally directed programmes and brokering partnerships between employers on the one hand and colleges and universities, especially universities of technology, on the other.
We are actively engaged in improving the quality of education in all our institutions, focussing on raising the levels of our weakest institutions. Our main priority in the sphere of post school institutions is to expand and strengthen the FET Colleges – which are soon to be renamed Vocational and Continuing Education Colleges to better describe their function. The purpose is to expand the production of mid-level skills, including the production of artisans.
One of the biggest challenges in this regard is to find positions for students to get work-place experience which, in many instances is actually compulsory in order to qualify. If we are to expand the pool of skills in our country we have to ensure that every student in a vocational programme at a college or university of technology has the opportunity for workplace training. We can expand training in our college and university system, but if students do not have the practical experience – particularly in a real workplace – they cannot be considered as qualified.
So it is essential that employers in both the public and private sectors become involved in providing training spaces to young trainees – either as apprentices, learners or interns. Workplace experience is not only important as a means of learning and honing practical skills; it is also essential in order to prepare young people for like in the workplace by teaching them other essential skills like workplace discipline, working in teams, etc. Research has shown that those with some workplace experience find it easier to find and to keep jobs.
Taking on trainees has many advantages to employers as well as employees. Employers do, of course, need to pay a small amount to the apprentice, learner or intern, but do benefit in return. They not only get the labour of the trainees who can contribute profitably to productive activities if their work is carefully planned, but a proper trainee system can play an important part in staff recruitment. This is because it gives employers the opportunity to observe prospective staff while they are in a temporary position as trainees and to recruit the best worker or fit best with the company’s needs or the company culture.
At the national level, a system in which all employers participate in training will make for a better-skilled workforce for the country. Countries with close cooperation between employers and government in training the youth tend to have a competitive advantage. In Germany and Switzerland, for example, 70% of all young people become apprentices when they leave basic education, working 3 or 4 days a week (depending of the trade or profession) and attending classes for the other 1 or 2 days a week.
Both Germany and Switzerland credit their vocational training system with a large role in their economic success and the continued competitive of their manufacturing industries.
By contrast, the UK, allowed its manufacturing industries to deteriorate because the dominant thinking in government in the 1980s and 1990s told them that Britain’s comparative advantage was in the service industries – banking, insurance, legal services, various types of consultancy, and so on. Deindustrialisation was accompanied by the demise of investment in vocational training.
Britain has lived to regret this and is now, like us, busy trying to revive its apprenticeship system as a way of training for both the manufacturing and service industries.
An important initiative of government and its social partners, undertaken through National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC), was the development of the National Skills Accord and its adoption by all the NEDLAC partners in August last year. Government and business committed themselves to taking on more trainees. Government has started to implement this, with my department alone taking on 100 young graduates as interns a year.
Other departments are also involved in this to various degrees. The business sector has also started to step up training, especially the state-owned enterprises and some of the larger companies. However, more needs to be done by both the public and private sectors.
We are making training obligatory for companies involved in government infrastructure projects. We missed the opportunity that we had with major infrastructure projects in the past – for example the World Cup and the Gautrain.
Although some training was done during the construction, the projects were largely wasted as opportunities for training. We must never allow this to happen again. All workplaces are potentially training spaces – whether they be major infrastructure projects, large manufacturing firms, banks, insurance companies, hotels or other service industries. Training can take place in small companies as well as large ones.
Every workplace should be a training space. Every business should be involved. Training is good for business and it is good for the economy. We have a great opportunity to work together for the benefit of our country and for the betterment of our young people. Let’s use it!