Facilitating skills development, education and training

The Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services SETA (merSETA) is amongst one of the 21 SETAs


The Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services SETA (merSETA) is amongst one of the 21 SETAs set up across various industries to promote skills and development in South Africa. Lebogang Letsoalo, the Chairperson of merSETA, exudes the dedication and drive towards a South Africa where the manufacturing and associated industries create jobs and wealth.

There are five sub-sectors or chambers within merSETA: metal and engineering, auto manufacturing, motor retail and component manufacturing, tyre manufacturing, as well as the plastics industry. These chambers comprise of about 40 000 companies, with an estimated workforce of 600 000 people.

merSETA’s ultimate vision is to capacitate the industry and drive the fight against unemployment. In fact, Letsoalo firmly lives by the belief that manufacturing as an industry is capable of turning the South African economy around and becoming the saving grace.

Letsoalo admits that the SETA’s reputation hasn’t necessarily been seen to add value, but merSETA’s new board and strategy are robust and she is confident that merSETA could become the benchmark. The future of SETAs will be decided in the next two years, Letsoalo says, when the licences will be reviewed and harsh decisions are made. It is hers and the board’s vision to make merSETA the golden standard. This, she says, can only be done through collaboration and partnerships. Partnerships amongst other SETAs but, importantly, with the business world.

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are key to the growth of the sector and the economy as a whole. Currently, Letsoalo says the private and public sectors have been working in silos and as an independent Chairperson, she is able to see that gap and pull them together. The government has ideas on what the country’s imperatives should be and corporates have the resources as enablers to achieving them, therefore, bringing them together is critical.

Industry 4.0

Technology has disrupted and evolved many sectors over the past few years and promises to continue doing so. Letsoalo says that in line with Industry 4.0, curricula and lecturers need to be brought into alignment with what the corporates require from graduates. There is a disparity between the theory-heavy learning experienced in universities and technical colleges and what is required in the workplace. merSETA is perfectly positioned to act as a lever, through its research and support academia with updating curricula in line with the ‘real-world’ requirements of business.

One of the most exciting developments in technology is the advent of 3-dimensional simulations to bring practical solutions which build technical competencies, Letsoalo says. “A student is now able to look at a computer-aided design (CAD) drawing of an engine and see each and every part. They are able to interact with it in real-time and see what would happen if one part was missing, or if a part was taken out incorrectly,” explains Letsoalo.

How BRICS and merSETA can help drive the economy

Letsoalo is passionate when talking about the youth and she believes the only way to effectively and sustainably eradicate unemployment is through entrepreneurship: “One issue a new business may experience is that they require an artisan but are unable to pay the high price of an experienced engineer. Through merSETA, we offer companies the opportunity to hire graduates at a much lower cost. This not only stimulates the small business but provides on-site experience for the graduate,” she says.

Letsoalo points out that during the build-up to the Soccer World Cup in 2010, many of the artisans required were imported from China. Her question is, “If there is another boom like that in capital procurement, would we have the necessary local skills?” The answer is a dismal no. Yet, the silver lining is that through BRICS and the initiatives focusing on skills development, change is on the horizon. The focus is on consolidating the level of readiness in the country and aligning that with the investment available.

The BRICS Business Council (BRICS BBC)

The BRICS BBC comprises of nine working groups that drive collaboration in key strategic areas.

merSETA is a member of the international BRICS Manufacturing and Skills Development Working Groups (SDWG), which have the following objectives:

  • Increasing bilateral and multilateral cooperation in skills development for Industry 4.0 and other future skills that facilitate economic growth.
  • Establishing collaboration for innovation and development of cost-effective learning tools.
  • The development of a standard qualification framework and new curriculum in emerging technologies in order to facilitate skills development and raise skills standards.
  • Hosting a skills challenge and expo to encourage the desirability of vocational skills and promote awareness of future jobs amongst youth.

“Skills for today and tomorrow”

As one of the international collaboration projects, the South African BBC SDWG agreed to host the second BRICS Future Skills Challenge and Expo with the theme of “Skills for today and tomorrow”.

The skills areas featured during the 2018 Future Skills Challenge will showcase transforming and emerging skills directly linked to Industry 4.0.

Skills areas broadly relate to the digital, manufacturing and engineering and composite sub-sectors, which resulted in the merSETA embracing the opportunity to play a key role in the event.

The following skills areas will be featured through youth skills competitions/challenges as well as skills demonstrations:

  • Cybersecurity
  • Industrial Internet of Things
  • Data analytics
  • Industrial robotics
  • Welding, including robotic welding
  • Intelligent manufacturing: 3D printing
  • CNC Multi-Axis Machining
  • Drone technology
  • Composite technology
  • Manufacturing maker challenge
  • Aircraft sheet metal

The supply chain, merSETA and growth

Letsoalo’s background is in supply chain management, where some of the biggest challenges include governance and the role of procurement in enabling entrepreneurship, industrialisation, localisation and competition, she says. In her view, China became a world power in the field of manufacturing because they enabled themselves to do so. In South Africa, the Black Industrialist Programme is aimed at the localisation of the industry, where the focus will be on manufacturing locally and exporting, rather than relying on imports. Collaborative efforts will also be required to ensure the success of this vision. Discussions with organisations such as Proudly SA, will guarantee that South African products are positively marketed to the international market.

Following 18 years in the supply chain sector, Letsoalo has insights, which may cause some envy. Yet, having left the corporate world three years ago, Letsoalo has not sat still. In addition to being the newly-appointed Chairperson of merSETA, she is a well-known supply chain coach, helping companies optimise their supply chains, she is part of an organisation that provides advisory solutions in the supply chain sector.

In her opinion, corruption is the biggest problem facing the supply chain industry and only through training, coaching and mentoring can the right skills be taught and the correct ethics imparted to the next generation.

On becoming the Chairperson of merSETA, Letsoalo chuckles: “It’s a mammoth task to ensure strategic leadership, which will ensure that what we are doing has a meaningful impact. With the SETA licences being reviewed in two years, I want merSETA to be seen as one of the levers driving the South African economy.”

When looking at skills development, Letsoalo believes there are two prongs:

  1. Career—are the skills being imparted at tertiary education facilities meeting the needs of the corporate world?
  2. Entrepreneurship—are graduates able to either start working immediately or, better yet, start their own businesses?

Letsoalo the leader

Humbly, Letsoalo describes her leadership style as the “servant leader”. This means that you need to be a thought leader, have passion and make an impact by building human capital. You must be an example both inside and outside your industry.

In the corporate world, there is a certain level of influence and affluence that can be achieved but how often you volunteer is as important as building up your network. Not every activity in which you participate needs to be remunerated, you need to know that you are making an impact, says Letsoalo.

Skills and information sharing are key to her success. Skills development isn’t necessarily about sitting someone down in a classroom and teaching them, it is about sharing your experiences, talking to people you admire and building human capital in those around you. Letsoalo is drawn to people with passion, it could be the CEO of a multi-national conglomerate or a cleaner in the street, looking at celebrities as role models isn’t always good—rather look for someone with passion, drive, resilience and ethics.

The biggest competition she experiences is with herself, no one else.

“If I can’t make a difference, I may as well either change my ways or forget the task. Every action needs to make a positive change in our worlds and through merSETA, I feel like this is completely achievable,” Letsoalo says in closing. 

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