Short­age greater rather than less

‘In three-quar­ters of our pub­lic secondary schools lit­tle learn­ing takes place’

Finweek English Edition - - Focus On -

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

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