Shortage greater rather than less
‘In three-quarters of our public secondary schools little learning takes place’
COMPANIES ARE DOING AN enormous amount to develop skills in South Africa. However, that begs the question of what the role of the State is in providing a minimum education standard among those entering the workforce.
Ann Bernstein, executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), says: “We need to start from the harsh reality that in at least three-quarters of our public secondary schools little if any learning actually takes place. We fail to produce the desired growth in numbers of maths and science matriculants at a level necessary for tertiary education despite the existence of a specialist maths and science school programme – Dinaledi – since 2001. And we have high unemployment rates for poorly trained graduates.”
Bernstein says the challenge facing business and Setas alike is that the raw material they have to deal with isn’t up to standard and they have to backtrack to establish levels of education among workers that should have been achieved at school or university. Money meant for actual skills development is being spent on upgrading secondary education.
Says Bernstein: “Company resources are limited and they can only be deployed maximally when the State performs its core functions and there’s clarity on achievable objectives, a mutually agreed strategy and confidence in the approach and broader framework. In pushing companies to do more we shouldn’t ignore the role of markets and the potential for new or redirected specialist enterprises to play a larger role in training and education in the right environment of risk and reward.”
The need for training permits the introduction to the market of “skills arbitrage”. Some companies, banks and many individual firms spend a fortune on skills development. Companies that don’t, can afford to offer higher salaries (because they’re not spending money on training) to poach them.
The creation of the Joint Initiative on Priority Skills Acquisition (Jipsa) to develop the skills most required in SA was a clear sign that the “skills revolution” promised by the adoption of a comprehensive skills development strategy in 1997 had failed to materialise. Across private and public sectors, at national and local levels, economic growth and service delivery are threatened by skills shortages, says the CDE.
Jipsa is based on a deceptively simple association of ideas: skills shortages constitute an obstacle to growth but the skills development system that’s been struggling to hit its stride for nearly 10 years is itself subject to blockages. Within its own terms of reference Jipsa is a praiseworthy initiative. It has put skills high on the political agenda and emphasised the importance of skills for growth – a priority that got lost in the social engineering wish lists of SA’s original skills development strategy.
Bernstein says: “The country needs to move beyond crisis management measures. We need to ensure that SA isn’t locked into an approach where we have to give each new generation a ‘second education’.”
She says it’s in that dysfunctional context that we need to be careful not to misconceive the appropriate roles and responsibilities of private companies.
“We can’t shift the burden of totally inadequate educational performance on to employers generally and business in particular through the medium of skills development. Companies do have obligations and interests with respect to workplace training; and while many have meaningful achievements in that arena more can still be done.
“It’s important not to expect private enterprise to fill the enormous gulf left by a schools system that fails the majority of students. But it’s fair to consider how the discipline and efficiency of markets can play a greater role in education and training of South Africans, what role private training enterprises can play and how that can be expanded, what more large companies or sectors in the economy can contribute and what incentives can be devised to encourage that expansion, and we need to muster a better combination of market and public resources.”
Start from a harsh reality. Ann Bernstein