Skilling South Africa

Calvin Augustine

The world has changed over the last few months, as developed nations edge closer towards recession and world growth prospects begin to fade. But this reversal in world fortunes is in one sense a positive for Africa, and particularly South Africa, in the area of skills development and retention.

People tend to follow opportunities, says Bobby Godsell, former head of mining multinational AngloGold Ashanti. He believes South Africa has a wealth of opportunities ready for the picking, and the country will not have a problem in attracting the scarce skills it needs.

Godsell is an adviser to the Joint Initiative on Priority Skills Acquisition (Jipsa), the body created to tackle the country’s skills shortage. He says emerging markets such as South Africa will be on world investor’s list of choice destinations, as this is where growth is expected over the next five to 10 years.

Through his interactions with international companies, particularly those in the West, Godsell notes that their sentiment towards Africa has never been more positive. “We’ve got massive infrastructure development underway, corporate governance is improving,” he says. “I’ve never seen sentiment as positive as this. I think we’re going to see a return of engineers.”

South Africa’s Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka echoes this, saying that the opportunities in South Africa for people to advance are “quite attractive”. Speaking at the release of the Jipsa annual report in April, Mlambo-Ngcuka said that the government and the private sector are actively engaging in various initiatives to attract skills.

Better working conditions and remuneration packages are critical in retaining and attracting highly skilled professionals for South Africa, she says. Jipsa is looking into these retention areas and the government would also continue to improve the conditions of service.

Chief economist in the Office of the Presidency Alan Hirsch says that Jipsa’s interactions with town and regional planners, a scarce skill highly demanded by South African municipalities as they expand, have revealed that it is not that the country is not producing enough planners, but that people did not stay in the profession due to the poor conditions of service.

To remedy this, professional standards have been designed for the town planning profession, the South African Council for Planners has now been strengthened and the registration of planners is being promoted to enhance the profession.

Urgent attention has also been given to foreign skills recruitment. The government, through the Department of Home Affairs, is facilitating the easier importation of skills with a quota of work permits. The quotas enable foreign professionals in specific categories to apply for work permits without having already found jobs in the country.

In addition, in the two years since the inception of Jipsa, great strides have been made in training up South Africans as engineers, artisans, technicians and educators.

According to the Jipsa report, the 2007/08 service levels agreements – signed between the various sector education and training authorities and the labour department – a total of 18 879 artisans have been registered. An additional 20 000 will be registered for 2008/2009 and a total of 50 000 is expected to be achieved by 2010. Jipsa overshot its engineering training targets with its target of graduating 1 000 engineers a year being topped by 500 last year; the body hopes to increase this to 2 000 a year by 2010.

But Mlambo-Ncguka says South Africa will still need to improve skills development if the country wants to keep abreast with the rest of the world.

“It is important to highlight that in the area of skills, since we started the world has changed,” she says. “The scale of the problem is bigger; it’s now time to up our game.”

While the brain drain remains a concern, one solution is for South Africa to produce more skills than it requires. Another is the Jipsa Work Placement Programme, which fast-tracks deployment and improves productivity of qualified young people with scarce skills.

This programme includes the placement of unemployed graduates both locally and internationally. Both local and international companies have responded to the call, with more than 20 000 offers received for graduates and about 15 000 already being placed. Eskom, Transnet, Microsoft, Shoprite, Old Mutual and Xstrata have taken several hundred, as well as the American Chamber of Commerce.

Jipsa records that a few companies have recruited matriculants so far, but will in future focus more on these new entrants to the work force as well as semi-skilled people with potential for training. Foreign missions in South Africa have embraced the programme, with China, Canada, the US, UK, Cuba, Brazil, Singapore and Malaysia so far committed to the programme.

The mandate period for the Jipsa secretariat has been extended by another 18 months. In its second phase of operation, the body will focus more on research and evaluation.