There is no doubt that the conundrum of an acute skills shortage alongside mass unemployment constitutes the most critical issue threatening the future of South Africa. This year the country has recorded a growth rate of 2.7% and the unemployment rate is about 33%, including those who have given up looking for work. Seventy percent of those unemployed are said to be under the age of 35. A woman leaving school in Limpopo stands a one in eight chance of ever getting a job.
The skills shortage and high unemployment interact with each other in a devastating way. It is insightful to note that SA’s key problem is how it is going to maintain the growth rate it needs to feed its growing population. SA won’t be able to use the method employed by the Southeast Asian ‘tigers’ of using cheap labour to undercut its export competitors while it grows its economy and expands its skills base, because its labour unions will prevent that.
One solution is to develop a skills-training model based on systems that have been used for years in Germany, Switzerland and several Scandinavian countries. This would involve not only vastly improving the education system but also integrating it with a system of apprenticeships.
The essence of the German education system is that it is channelled into different streams. There are three streams, actually, but for our purposes we need focus only on two — an academic and a vocational stream. Students should be given a choice, after passing, say, grade 9 or 10, whether they want to continue in the academic stream and go on to university, or learn a vocational skill through an apprenticeship programme.
Those who drop out of high school earlier should also have the opportunity of entering an apprenticeship course.
These apprenticeships should be wide-ranging, from becoming a skilled baker or hairdresser, to a motor mechanic, a construction worker or an electrician. A student deciding to enter an apprenticeship must find an employer who will take him or her on to train for the career the individual has chosen — which is usually three years.
During that time, the student will spend part of his time gaining practical on-the-job experience working for the employer, and part of it attending classes at a vocational school. The classes will focus mainly on the technical side of the job; the shop-floor work on the practical side. Running records have to be kept by both the employer and the vocational school instructors so that the training can be co-ordinated.
The apprentices are paid a small salary throughout the apprenticeship period, which usually goes up a little each year as their skills advance. At the end, they have to write an exam run by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. When they pass that they are qualified as a skilled professional in the chosen work category — and receive a certificate testifying to that.
School-leavers in SA today have no craft certification of any sort, which makes getting that critical first-time job in the face of sceptical employers faced with labour regulation requirements cruelly difficult.
However salary is the thing that troubles the trade unions.
But the suggestion of how to get around this political problem is to enact a law establishing that the apprenticeship period falls under the Department of Education, not the Department of Labour.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions actually recognises the need for on-the-job training at lower pay, but it has become so entrenched in its commitment to the principle of "decent work" that it can’t lose face by backing off from it.
Classifying an apprenticeship as part of an individual’s education may be a way around that difficulty, because the labour regulations could remain unchanged and become applicable to the apprentice only after he has graduated from his apprenticeship.
A further advantage of the German system is that, after successfully completing a full apprenticeship course, a student can continue at the vocational school for another year or two to acquire higher certification as a "master" baker, mechanic or whatever, which rates as the equivalent of matric — thus opening the way to go to university and, beyond that, to a graduate school of business for an MBA.
SA's graduates would then be able to seek a job in management with the special advantage of knowing what life is like for workers on the shop floor and earning their respect in turn for having that knowledge.
Flexibility is the essence of any such system, so that German students from the academic stream can also switch to become apprentices after passing matric if they so wish, enabling them to follow the same route to a job in management.
SA is going to need skilled workers every bit as much as she needs to reduce the unemployment rate.
Original Article by Allister Sparks: Business Day