Facilitating skills development


Everybody’s talking about the revolution—the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which machine to machine (M2M) and the Internet of Things (IoT) are converging with the classical spaces of manufacturing and engineering to radically change the way manufacturing firms operate. It’s got a lot of people rattled—will the robots take our jobs? But companies that prudently emphasise innovation and skills development are likely to ride out the wave of change to safe harbours. In the words of Deloitte Digital Africa leader Valter Adão: “Much like Darwin’s aphorism, it will be the workers that are quickest to adapt to change who will survive the next wave of disruption.”

Easier said than done, you may think. How do we determine which skills to prioritise in an environment characterised by disruption and constant change? How do we even decide which training programmes to pursue? Fortunately, South African manufacturing and engineering companies have an ally with the mission and expertise to ensure that just the right skills are incubated—while continuing to transform the workforce. That ally is the merSETA, under the capable leadership of Dr Raymond Patel.

One of 21 Setas (Skills Education Training Authorities) established through the Skills Development Act No 97 of 1998 (as amended), the merSETA has five economic sub-sectors with more than 44 000 member companies accounting for the following sectors: metal and engineering, auto manufacturing, new tyre, plastics manufacturing and motor retail and component manufacturing. There are about 600 000 employees in these five economic sectors. However, the merSETA doesn’t have its own training programmes—so what is its role?

“We’re responsible for setting standards, developing curriculums, enrolling and also entrenching young people into apprenticeships and learnerships.

“We provide funding through the 1% levy to a mandatory grant and a discretionary grant, so that companies may train both their current workers and also new entrants into the workplace. In other words, we’re responsible for the economic upswing of companies to ensure that their workers have the requisite skills to enable their companies to remain competitive and innovative internationally,” explains Dr Patel.

Looking at the manufacturing and engineering sector specifically, this general goal unpacks into several main objectives.

First is to develop the Labour Market Intelligence System sector by promoting and developing an institutional base for providing robust and reliable sector data by aligning internal ICT, administration functions and M&E (monitoring and evaluation) with the requirements of credible research and sector skills planning as well as implementing the systematic development of research partnerships with higher education institutions and the development of knowledge management within the organisation.

Second is a continued and increased focus on artisan development, which includes pathways to an artisan status from learners’ progression, career guidance and sector and company perspectives; involvement of relevant stakeholders in the planning and governance of qualifications and curriculum development and assessment as well as provider-employer cooperation and scalable workplace learning; programmes and projects for strengthened relationships among TVET colleges, industry training centres and industry; promoting artisan recognition of prior learning (ARPL); and enhancing capacity of SMEs to offer artisan training.

Third is to establish and facilitate strategic partnerships, which entails engaging with the government, non-government, employer associations, labour organisations and bargaining councils for greater levels of coordination and efficiency and pursuing partnerships with local and international higher education institutions to ensure new ideas and research outcomes to benefit the sector.

Fourth is to increase the flow of newly-skilled workers into the sector by addressing skills shortages currently experienced whilst accommodating for planned growth, the impact of technological changes and replacement demand; providing access to work experience opportunities; addressing transformation imperatives with respect to race, gender, class, geography, disability and age; and increasing career guidance and development in rural areas.

Fifth is to develop the skills of the existing workforce through lifelong learning and the creation of career pathways consistent with decent work, equity and sector economic growth; identifying occupational pathways for existing workers and those at risk of retrenchment and, thus, implementing upskilling, re-skilling and trans-skilling; and providing continuing education, post-qualification programmes, continuous professional development and management development.

As ambitious as these objectives may seem, the merSETA has proven itself more than capable of meeting the challenge. Dr Patel recites a litany of success: “Our target for increasing access to occupationally-directed programmes was 18 012 and we succeeded in enrolling 27 648. Our target for artisan development was 9 600 and our impressive result was 12 722. For increasing literacy and numeracy of workers, our target was 5 300 and we succeeded in training 9 244 workers. Our target for assisting co-operatives, small enterprises, worker-initiated and community organisations with skills support was 1 758 and our achievement was 2 249. Our target for building career and vocational guidance through major events and awareness programmes was 27 and our achievement 43. We also promoted partnerships with more than 3 500 post-school education and training institutions and workplaces.”

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has not caught Dr Patel napping—on the contrary, he has a keen appreciation for the situation: “With new and disruptive technologies come the requirement for highly skilled workers, resulting in a rise in joblessness for semi-skilled and unskilled workers. Workers in the sector need opportunities to be upskilled to meet the high-level skills demands of modern day manufacturing. Workers need to be equipped with skills that allow agility in an ever-changing labour (skills) market. This also emphasises the importance of focusing on future skills as well as lifelong learning. Advanced manufacturing and beneficiation also require investment in the country’s Innovation, Research and Development (IRD) capability requiring skills at a masters and PhD level. Curricula need to be informed by industry to ensure a capable workforce in sync with industry trends.”

The challenges don’t stop there. “Apart from the impact of Industry 4.0, we have to increase employment in those sectors, particularly manufacturing, that fall within the ambit of the merSETA,” explains Dr Patel. “We, as an organisation, are also going to increase our co-funding and cooperation with various entities. This approach and principle translate into a business model that will strengthen the merSETA’s targets for the sector’s skills needs through both full grants funding for some skills development interventions and by using its grants to leverage funding from forging partners through co-funded agreements. This business model will enable the merSETA to encourage industry, the government and public entities to take more learners in response to the needs of the sector and national socio-economic growth and development goals,” he adds.

Cutting-edge curriculums

Charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the institutions that produce tomorrow’s workers are able to furnish training relevant to the dynamic and evolving workplace, the merSETA is obliged to keep a vigilant eye on international trends.

“For merSETA to remain at the cutting edge, it’s necessary for us to benchmark internationally what’s happening in training and secondly, to look at the development of curriculums,” comments Dr Patel.

“There’s an event called World Skills that happens every two years—it’s a skills competition to showcase and inspire world-class excellence in skills and introduce youth to a variety of skilled careers. We participate in order to stay abreast of change and see how our curriculums compete with those of other countries.

“We also go on field trips to study the latest training developments in other countries, especially engineering and manufacturing powerhouses like Germany and China. One of our major projects this year has been to expose more than 200 young people to a Work Integrated Learning Programme in the People’s Republic of China as well as a lecturer development programme in China that targets our local TVET college educators. Basically, the students and lecturers are going to be in China for a month and a year respectively, just to benchmark our standards against theirs. We also had a few students in Germany doing PhD studies for us to gauge the nature of their curriculum and how the dual apprenticeship model works, enabling us to better understand how it has helped Germany to become and remain so effective,” he explains.

For merSETA to achieve optimal results, it’s necessary for the private sector to participate as fully as possible. However, full participation has yet to be achieved. Dr Patel ascribes this to an unfortunate tendency towards short-termism, coupled with the perception—unheard of in countries like Germany and Switzerland—that government is somehow responsible for skills development.

“South African companies chase profitability and sometimes forget that profitability comes from the capability of your human resource.

“The higher your capability, the greater your profitability. We look at human resources, basically, as a commodity, but not a commodity that adds to where the company is moving to.

“Then there is the economic downturn that we’ve experienced in South Africa. We’ve lost quite a number of jobs, meaning that companies are now focusing more on just getting production done. The way we want training to be done isn’t classroom-based—we want to have a mentor who mentors a young person into an artisanship. So, he becomes a journeyman and works with his mentor right from the beginning up to the moment he signs off and becomes a competent artisan. This is where we are not getting enough buy-in from the private sector,” Dr Patel criticises.

“Contrast this to how things work in Switzerland, for example. A few years ago, I accompanied the Minister of Higher Education on an international tour and one of the companies we visited was ABB in Switzerland. There, we found a group of 15-year-olds known as ‘young apprentices’—they were still at school but came to ABB for work-integrated learning. You don’t see that in South Africa. What’s more, when we asked what the Swiss government contributes towards the scheme, the answer was ‘nothing’—the apprenticeship system is entirely funded by the private sector, on the model of the old guild system. Training from one generation to the next in this way has enabled Switzerland to retain its competitive edge as one of the leading economies in Europe and the world. In Germany, training is also driven by business, not the government—the German chambers of commerce ensure that the standards are set,” he says.

That said, Dr Patel freely acknowledges that the government does have a vital role to play: “Research has shown that the government is crucial to enhancing the atmosphere and the environment for the corporate sector, particularly small business, to succeed. Healthy legislation, rules, regulations and consultation are necessary for business to succeed. In particular, for our country, both the government and big businesses need to embark on a strong journey to ensure that the informal and the SMME sector are fully brought on board into the formal economy.”

Developing and boosting small business is a high priority for the merSETA, as Dr Patel explains: “In South Africa, manufacturing is slowing down. Twenty years ago, manufacturing contributed about 18% of the GDP; currently, manufacturing contributes about 11.5/11.7% of the GDP. Even so, you see more cars, more steel being used, more plastic products and so on. What this means is that we’re facing a de-industrialisation of the South African economy. We’re importing more ready-made goods, we take our raw iron ore and we ship it off to China, and we buy back ready-made steel products. We take our gold and we ship it off to Europe and we buy back jewellery. That simply says that this country is going the wrong way.”

“To turn this around, you have to ensure that your people are not trained only for employability but for entrepreneurship. Give them the skill but take that skill and let it become the basis for an opportunity. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to start what I simply call cooperatives with FET colleges to incubate young people with very basic skills like motor mechanics, fabrication of burglar bars, fixing and re-engineering of pumps and so on, and through doing that, we are creating jobs directly where people live. It’s one way of outflanking the problem of spatial apartheid,” he says.

Caring, belonging, serving

The majority of South Africans have far more pressing concerns than the Fourth Industrial Revolution—for them, simply generating an income to escape the poverty trap is the highest order priority. This is where the merSETA’s transformative dimension comes into play.

“The merSETA facilitates the training of unemployed youth through skills programmes, bursaries, learnerships and apprenticeships.

“Furthermore, in order to reduce inequalities and social injustices, the merSETA assists with special projects such as the development of black females through its Black Females Leadership Development Programme. The merSETA also focuses on the training and development of semi-skilled and unskilled workers in the sector to promote structural transformation in the labour market. The merSETA promotes work-integrated learning in response to increasing the employability of TVET graduates through the NCV-to-artisan project,” says Dr Patel.

This concern with social upliftment is a reflection of the merSETA’s values as well as Dr Patel’s personal ethos.

“Our corporate values are caring, belonging, and serving,” he explains. “Caring is about people. How do you ensure that you develop people? How do you ensure that the SETA meets its mandate? For me, this is a dual imperative. First is the economic imperative, to ensure we train our people and foster competitiveness and profitability, which raises the standard of living. So that economic imperative must be driven.

“Equally important is the second imperative, which is the social imperative. We can either look into the social problems that we inherit or we can exacerbate them, it’s one of the two. The social problems are the problems that come with poverty, race discrimination, geography, gender, and gender bias, especially in our industry. For me, as a SETA, when you care, you’ve got to deal with those things. That’s the reason why SETAs exist. It’s not to become an ATM, it’s not to distribute money, it’s to have a transformative and positive impact on our society. It’s about caring.”

Dr Patel continues: “I understand poverty. I grew up in an environment replete with all the social evils of today. The most influential person in my life was my mother, who was an ordinary factory worker but said to herself that her children would never become factory workers. She saw in education an immediate means of liberation from the social situation in which she found herself. Mental poverty is worse than physical poverty. I could never repay the people who invested in my education. She worked two jobs seven days a week just to keep me at varsity and for that particular reason, I’ve taken on this job where I can make the difference in people’s lives.”

From this perspective, skills development goes beyond instructing people to acquire technical skills. This is what Dr Patel describes as his true calling: “A skill I can give you, but an attitude I cannot, so I’ve got to transfer that attitude, I’ve got to ensure that when you qualify, you can contribute to society. You might start at the micro level, which is when you put your family first and start by improving the standards of your family before going on to improve the standards of your community and, ultimately, improve the standards of South Africa, so that we come out of this quagmire of an entitlement to work. In the words of Kahlil Gibran: To toil is to toil with love: if you cannot, then sit at the gates of the temple and take alms.”

Dr Patel’s leadership ethos is thoroughly grounded on this attitude of service. By way of illustration, he invokes an analogy.

“A successful leader understands how an escalator works. In the morning, when you get to work, you get on this escalator and go up to your office; in the afternoon, you leave your office and go back down on the escalator. By analogy, you may ascend right into that office as a leader, but you must be in touch with the needs of the people on the ground and you cannot know that by sitting on top in that office of yours but by coming down and walking that ground with them, by understanding the needs of people, by talking to people, by sometimes living the way other people live.

“For instance, I had a query once that we weren’t responding fast enough to requests, so I went to sit in the call centre to field the calls. People in the call centre were taking selfies—‘the CEO is sitting in the call centre!’—and I told them, I cannot understand the problems you’re experiencing or the client out there if I don’t understand what’s happening and how you’re dealing with it.

“I didn’t take on this job because of the fancy title. In fact, the title of CEO is completely meaningless on its own. What counts is the contribution you’ve got to make. That’s also what makes the work meaningful. I’d like to believe that all of our staff are motivated by the purpose of changing lives. There’s nothing like it when you go to a graduation or a passing out parade and a learner gets up and says, ‘When I started off here as a mechanic, I lived in a squatter camp, with my stipend I managed to move my parents and my family into an RDP house and now that I’m qualified, I own my own house’—that’s when you know you’ve made an impact on society. That’s what caring, belonging and serving is all about,” he concludes.

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