The Chemical Industries Education and Training Authority (CHIETA) has its mind set on taking the economy forward under the leadership of CEO Yershen Pillay. Ralph Staniforth spoke to the man behind the SETA to find out more about what CHIETA does, its importance, the challenges it faces, and the future.

Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) play a major role not just in preparing people for their careers, but also boosting the economy through their support of all who fall under their umbrella. With the South African economy taking a major hit over the last year, SETAs are more important than ever in producing the skills the economy lacks and supporting the businesses who have been hardest hit. In a lot of cases, South Africa is in dire need of skilled workers to ensure industry is able to operate at its peak, but that is easier said than done.

The Chemical Industries Education and Training Authority (CHIETA) is one such SETA looking to promote the value of upskilling our society and creating a better life for all. While many may never think to enter the chemical industries sector as a vocation, the importance of this sector cannot be understated. From pharmaceuticals to agriculture and mining, the chemical sector plays a vital part in much of the economic activity in South Africa, making it a broad, interesting, and challenging career choice.

Led by the ambitious and determined Yershen Pillay as their CEO, CHIETA is aiming to make lemonade from the lemons thrown at South Africa during the pandemic and the tough economic years preceding the emergence of COVID-19. Pillay, who was appointed in November 2020, is under no illusion as to the challenges we face as a country, but, for him, there is no shying away from the hard work required to set the country back on the path to prosperity.

The importance of CHIETA

CHIETA is among 21 SETAs in South Africa. These various SETAs focus on key areas of the economy which require skilled workers to fill positions of importance. In 1998, the Skills Development Act came into being with the sole purpose of ensuring that South Africa produces the required level of skills to create smooth economic operations. CHIETA works closely with the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO) to design and develop occupational qualifications and trades, quality assurance, accreditation, monitoring, as well as certification of competent learners.

From a CHIETA perspective, Pillay believes that his SETA’s importance lies in the fact that it assists various sub-sectors. Without a strong chemical industries sector, operations in sectors like mining, medicine, and agriculture would come to a standstill. These sub-sectors all feed back to the chemical industries sector, making CHIETA a vital cog in the wheel of skills development.

Pillay, who has a background in youth development from his time at the National Youth Development Agency, gave an interesting example in terms of this relationship, saying: “If you talk of a nanotechnologist, which is quite a new and emerging career currently, a nanotechnology engineer looks at invisible particles; how to study invisible particles, how to utilise these particles, and then uses them, for example, in the glass sector for scratch resistant glass. That is a result of nanotechnology. When you look at your paint resistant coatings, your paint manufacturing sector uses nanotechnology.”

While the relationship factor is vitally important, so is ensuring that the economy allows for such to continue. The key factor in improving the economy is ensuring that enough skilled workers are at the disposal of businesses to push production, creation, and strategy forward.

A worrying sign and one which is of grave importance to Pillay and CHIETA is the recent World Talent Index published by The Institute of Management Development in Switzerland. South Africa ranks 52nd on the index out of the 63 ranked economies. What this means is that not enough talent is being nurtured and expanded to build up the economy. While many will look at an index such as this with some skepticism, for Pillay it is a stark reminder of how important SETAs are as South Africa looks to rebuild.

“I think our role as CHIETA in developing local talent, which is globally competitive, is quite a critical role, especially for the chemical sector, where we have a plethora of opportunities. It allows us to be competitive if we develop the skills, the reskilling, and the upskilling interventions, and that is why our role is so important as CHIETA—to drive that into specific economic growths and address the jobs issue in an integrated, holistic way,” the Pietermaritzburg-born CEO says.

But how does one encourage young minds to think of the chemical industries sector as the right path to walk? For Pillay, it is all about the new and exciting careers that the sector is creating, as well as the collaboration opportunities with sub-sectors. The drawcard for CHIETA is being able to provide students with something fresh, and not your average desk job which fails to stimulate a generation which is completely different to the ones who have come before.

Pillay insists: “It is a very exciting industry to be in, because you are getting involved in new and emerging careers, such as nanotechnology or nanotechnology engineers. The other thing is that there are a number of sub-sectors that are rapidly growing, especially post COVID-19, with one of them being pharmaceuticals. So the pharmaceuticals industry is one of the top four fastest growing sub-sectors and for your own career progression, to be part of this sub-sector is a big deal. So, from a career progression point of view, there is growth, but it is also new and exciting opportunities that seem to be emerging.”

A challenging landscape

While the fresh landscape is there for people to pursue under the guidance of CHIETA, the chemical sector is not without its challenges. The challenges, however, are what make the sector even more attractive, as why would anyone be content in their place of work without being challenged to find solutions and improve their environment?

One of these challenges is found on the ethical side of operations—the pursuit of a greener future and healthier planet. While it is of the utmost importance that we look after our planet for future generations, the transition to a greener way of operating is providing the chemical sector with its fare share of speed bumps. However, these are speed bumps which are worth traversing in the long run, with CHIETA ready to go along for that ride with you.

“The chemical sector is in transition. It is a sector that is now focusing on decarbonising and establishing green footprints. Green chemistry is emerging as one of the key aspects. This transition is currently taking place within the chemical sector and chemical companies, whether it be your large companies or your small and medium companies, they are feeling these challenges associated with the transition to these new ways of working,” the University of Cape Town and GIBS Business School graduate says.

“Not all companies and employees are prepared for that, but this is where we come in as a partner in new value creation and ensuring the transition is accelerated.”

In 2019, 169 000 people were employed within the chemical sector in South Africa. Sadly, that number dropped to 162 000 as of February 2020. This presents another challenge to CHIETA—one which needs to be met with innovative thinking. A major factor in this is resource issues, which has created a constrained working environment. For Pillay, now is the time to “think differently, do differently, be different, and deliver better results.”

That positive attitude extends to dealing with the doubters who believe that the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) will add to the unemployment rate in South Africa. Pillay is of the firm belief that 4IR will not have the impact on jobs that some believe it will, but that also boils down to people preparing for what is to come and upskilling themselves to deal with this disruption.

“Ultimately, I think it boils down to your basic foundational skills that still remain relevant. So what we term as the Four Cs—your creativity, your communication skills, your collaboration skills, and your critical thinking skills, are still required,” Pillay says.

“Our approach is that you need the basic foundation of skills to remain relevant in the job market, irrespective of 4IR, or 5.0, 6.0 or whatever it may be. That’s where our focus is going, so whatever occupation you will be in, digital literacy, basic digital skills, how to use a laptop or iPad, how to navigate on that, is becoming more and more critical, and that is our focus. But we’re also looking at what the top occupations that we need to focus on in the chemical sector are, such as machine learning specialists, chemical plant operators, for example. There is a rising demand for them, so we need to make sure that we meet the demand that is currently required by industry in our training programmes.”

In terms of the pandemic, just like every organisation during this difficult time, CHIETA took its fair share of knocks. The biggest for Pillay came in the shape of the inability to teach and learn face-to-face. As the learning experience is practical, missing out on this much-needed time came at a price, but everyone is now back on track after lockdown regulations began to ease.

One positive to come out of the pandemic has been the need for upskilling in the pharmaceuticals sector, given the COVID-19 vaccines being formulated and produced in South Africa. Pillay explains: “With Aspen and Johnson & Johnson, it is simply upskilling and reskilling the current factory workers with machine learning skills as a 4IR skill and then redeploying them to go and increase productivity or even work on a new aspect of the business that they are involved in.”

Pushing the chemicals sector forward

The reality for the majority of students in South Africa is that finding the money to pay for your chosen study path is incredibly difficult. Many rely on bursaries, funding, or grants to make their dreams a reality, but that is far easier in practice. Countless hurdles make obtaining the funding very difficult, while loans are the last thing students want to take on, as that is a burden later in life. This can be very discouraging for students and is often the reason why they don’t even attempt to apply to study further.

CHIETA, however, are big on ensuring those wanting to study with them are given every opportunity to do so. They have set up various funds to assist prospective and final year students to be able to afford their studies. In 2021, 10 076 unemployed learners are supported by CHIETA, with the goal being 50 000 unemployed learners in the future. A R25 million fund is used to help final year students settle any debt, while up to R76 000 is available to students who require assistance in the form of bursaries. This is available to those starting their learning journey and those who want to pursue their Master’s degree and post-graduate studies. CHIETA also helps out when students go on learnerships or internships. Between R4 000 and R7 000 is available as a stipend for those given the opportunity to learn on site.

The support does not stop there. CHIETA also financially assist SMMEs. Pillay explains: “We offer financial support to SMMEs in the chemical sector. This is either start-up capital or financial assistance for whatever purposes; equipment, infrastructure, or support. We have a specific fund that we have set up with the University of Johannesburg (UJ) where it is going to provide financial assistance to SMMEs, too. That is R2.5-million for over 100 SMMEs, at least 40 thus far. That is part of the multi-prong strategy that we’re looking at.”

This support for SMMEs is a step in the right direction in terms of transformation of the sector. CHIETA has a strategy to ensure that they contribute towards a chemicals sector which is not just dominated by the big players—your Sasols of this world. Their strategy is to supply SMMEs with skilled artisans to boost productivity and, ultimately, profits. While convincing people to learn the skills of artisans is not easy, the goal is clear and they are pushing hard towards achieving it.

“Our strategy is to make artisanship ‘cool’, to make it sexy, because being an artisan, unfortunately, is seen a dirty, dull, and dangerous job, not something that is very attractive, especially for the younger people in the country,” the certified director by the Institute of Directors South Africa continues.

“But there is a high demand for artisans and employers want highly skilled, highly experienced artisans. So what we are doing is using our workplace integrated learning programmes, which allow for basic workplace skills—just communication, teamwork, and negotiation skills, to support small and medium enterprises. If we increase the growth rate of small and medium enterprises, then we contribute to a transformation of the sector.”

CHIETA has also pledged more money to universities in South Africa. The Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in Pretoria received R387 500 to assist those working towards pharmaceutical-related qualifications, while Vaal University of Technology (VUT) was granted R510 000 for their work in producing nanotechnology from waste glass and an additional R750 000 towards a project focusing on electric cars.

The good, the bad, and the ugly of leadership

For Pillay, his career has always been about ensuring the prosperity of others. As a self-proclaimed “people-centred CEO”, what Pillay does is never for the betterment of himself, but rather those around him. However, there is one thing which irks him about working in the public sector, and that is the lack of recognition people receive when compared with similar positions in the private sector. Positive affirmations are always a good thing, as it keeps the spirit high, but while this seldom happens in the public sector, Pillay has always taken it upon himself to ensure those who deserve praise rightly receive it. This speaks to the type of leader Pillay is.

Resources are also a major bone of contention for Pillay. While he does his best to lead, the often “volatile, uncertain, ambiguous, complex environment” in which he works makes things difficult. But that is a challenge he relishes. Yes, it may be problematic at times, but without this challenge, it would be a very dull job. A good leader is determined by their ability to lead in adversity—and that is exactly what Pillay thrives at.

But it is not all doom and gloom.

“I think, for me, in the last six months in office as the CEO, in a sense, it has been one of my greatest achievements thus far,” the former National Student Financial Aid Scheme non-executive board member says. “To motivate, inspire, and support the people of CHIETA, I think I have been able to galvanise them to say ‘let’s rally behind a new vision for change, for more innovation, digitisation, and collaboration’, and we have already seen that in the efforts for a CHIETA innovation lab, we have had open innovation sessions with our people, and we have also had collaboration with other agencies, such as your Technology Innovation Agency for Innovation, Competition and Chemistry projects, so I think it is just about putting people at the centre of success. If you can ask me that in one word, it is just being people-centred and enabling our people to thrive in an innovative space in time.”

Leading towards a prosperous future

Pillay has big targets for the future at CHIETA. He wants to make an impact with the SETA. With the unemployment rate what it is in South Africa, the only way forward is through making an impact large enough to keep people employed. That is done by ensuring all that you do is for the betterment of the economy, as an ailing economy—which we are experiencing right now, does little for longevity, prosperity, and dignity when it comes to the people of this country.

That impact is going to require innovation, as a workforce which is behind the times will have no skillset to push the economy forward. Pillay explains: “The future of CHIETA is a future that says we want to be the most innovative SETA amongst the 21 SETAs. If we can innovate, that means creating new value through new and useful feasible measures and interventions. Then we will certainly be able to make an impact in what we do.

“The other aspect to increasing our impact is digitisation. We want to be a fully-digitised organisation that is able to provide not only digitised training, learning, and development, but is also able to meet stakeholders’ needs and priorities in the digitised space.”

Pillay is also looking to turn the competition into collaborators. Gone are the days of when it was ‘them against us’. Now is the time to start working together towards the common goal, as a weak South African economy with a poorly supplied workforce will only lead to more and more problems. This collaboration requires the buy-in of the 21 SETAs in the country, as pooling resources will not only open more avenues for students, but it will assist in ensuring each SETA has enough in the way of resources to continue to drive their strategies.

In order for Pillay to realise his three-pronged strategic approach to success—innovation, digitisation, and collaboration, the people who work under him are going to need to buy into his vision. That shouldn’t be a problem, says Pillay, as his leadership style of putting the people first will stand him in very good stead.

“It is all about our people. It’s people first. That is the approach I take,” he concludes.

There is little doubting that Pillay is the right man to lead CHIETA into the future. He has shown that his leadership style creates an environment which is about the people, for the people. While that may sound a bit cliché, it is based on fact. If the people around him are happy, that will filter down to the students, SMMEs, and all other stakeholders. This is the kind of leadership we need in these uncertain times, especially if we are going to come out on the other side of the pandemic with an economy which is rich with possibility and packed with skilled workers ready to take the country forward. ▲

Ralph Staniforth