Skills for a smarter future

The South African labour force is going to need new skills to prepare itself for the emerging industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0


With a rise in new digital industrial technology, everything from manufacturing to mining, construction, medicine and other sectors will be affected, and the labour market needs to rethink skills and career choices.

New competencies in areas such as ICT, computer science and actuarial science will be needed, and there are concerns that the South African education system is not yet up to the task of equipping young people with the skills they need to future-proof them in the coming digital age.

The responsibility to ensure that talents are developed in line with the demand falls largely to the Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs), which provide and certify learnerships, internships, skills programmes and apprenticeships to individual industries. These SETAs are monitored by the National Skills Authority (NSA), which, in turn, advise the Minister of the Department of Higher Education, Science and Technology.

“We are mainly here to assist in achieving the objectives set out by the Skills Development Act, skilling the workforce of South Africa and making sure we get the unemployed on board. To do this, we have to ask ourselves how we can prepare these people for the labour market. The NSA also assists the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology in the development of the National Skills Development Strategy. We are now working through our third strategy, and this strategy is one that talks to a variety of goals and objectives,” says Dr Thabo Mashongoane, Executive Officer for the NSA.

“We also do broad consultation with the South African public, as well as targeted consultation with provincial skills development forums (PSDF) and at a national level, where we engage with all interested stakeholders. We track the progress of the implementation of the strategy annually and engage with Parliament on skills development, education and training,” he adds.

The NSA has a responsibility to investigate issues around the various SETAs and has been working closely with them on improving the different sector skills plans. According to Mashongoane, they have appointed a SETA review panel who, for the last four years, has been tasked with ensuring the quality of data reported back from the SETAs.

To effectively advise the minister, the NSA is required to engage with a multitude of stakeholders, from members of business and industry, to organised labour unions like COSATU and FEDUSA, members of government departments, public employers as well as private companies, public training institutions and private universities and colleges.

“Before the NSA was founded, South Africa had a plethora of industrial training bodies. Since our inception, these have been brought down from 27 SETAs—representing various sectors of the economy—down to 21. I think that these remaining SETAs provide a holistic representation of the South African context, driving the economy forward with crucial skills development,” he says.

SETAs are established through a levy grant system where a percentage of the national skills levy, paid by employers, is used to fund SETA activities. Eighty per cent of the levy is given to SETAs, with the remaining 20% going to the National Skills Fund, which was created to finance training for disadvantaged groups, particularly the unemployed.

“We also advised the minister on the National Skills Development Plan (NSDP), which was informed by national priorities, as well as the White Paper for Post-School Education. What we realised was that skills development has previously been detached from education and training, and we need to look at how our universities and TVET colleges can better deliver on the demands of industry and the economy.

“A skill review also afforded us an opportunity to listen to the people and look at the current economic sectors. What we are seeing is that the traditional sectors are slowly fading away, paving the way for new economies, like the green economy, for example. We need to look at how best we can capacitate the current skill sets to meet these new demands. This speaks more to curriculum development, where we need to review what we are teaching and make sure it satisfies the needs of these new economies,” says Mashongoane.

Many of these new economies speak to the future, the digital economy in particular. According to Mashongoane, we must take into consideration any future skills that may be needed, and provisions have already been made for these skills in the NSDP.

“We are very aware of the fact that we could soon find ourselves approaching the Fifth Industrial Revolution, and we need to be ready. When I look at our country, I see a developing country on the one hand but on the other, I see pockets of excellence similar to developed countries. If we don’t properly equip our people, we will forever be left behind. What we have also realised is that we need to move our focus from low-level and mid-level skills to mid-level and high-level skills to be competitive,” he says.

The NSA’s current strategy focuses on increasing access to higher education and training, looking at ways to equip the workforce with the necessary skills for both their livelihoods and overall productivity. They are also addressing the skills gaps in those students coming from universities and TVET colleges, organising more industry-related training so that graduates are more employable and work-ready.

“We want to open workplaces to become training spaces, from the government and public enterprises to private companies and NGOs. We believe its time to allow learners access to the workplace, be it in the form of an apprenticeship, learnership or internship, for short periods of time to give them exposure to the working environment,” he says.

Support and funding for the informal sector are also important, as it currently does not get the recognition it deserves. Mashongoane would like to see the informal sector grow, and educational institutions introducing curricula that teach and offer entrepreneurship as a learning programme are essential to making sure this happens.

“When we talk about informal employment, it includes all people in the informal sector and people helping—unpaid—in their family business. It also includes employees in the formal sector and persons employed in private households who are not entitled to basic benefits such as a pension or medical aid and who also do not have a written contract of employment.

“We have more informal workers than formal workers and we need to work on how we can encourage them to participate in skills development. The National Skills Fund currently provides training grants through projects to rural areas and townships,” he says.

While he sees our economy becoming a knowledge-based economy, he says that getting quality data from employers can sometimes still really be a struggle, so efforts are being made to assist businesses to keep up to date with supplying this crucial information.

“Another important issue is that there are more and more people flocking to cities, and the economies in rural areas and townships are being neglected. We must also consider people with disabilities, and how we can better assist this demographic with skills development, going forward,” Mashongoane says.

In the past, the SETAs may have been guilty of trying to be everything to everyone and they are working towards being more focused on specific goals in future.

“There are certain projects that, going forward, would be more successful if they were done jointly, or in partnerships. Joint planning with government departments as well as the private sector will have more of an impact. We have also realised that there has to be a combined communication strategy—the SETAs often operate in silos and they communicate in silos, leading to key messages often being misinterpreted by the public. I believe that it is also imperative for us to strengthen our monitoring and evaluation. We have improved significantly on our reporting, but better monitoring is key as we are then able to correct problems quickly,” he says.

Mashongoane has dedicated himself to the NSA since 2007 when the body fell under the Department of Labour. The portfolio then changed to higher education and training in 2009, where it is still housed today.

His passion for education started with a career in the automotive industry in the early 80s, where he worked as a Fitter and Turner Apprentice, Quality Assurance Instructor and Inspector for six years. He qualified as an Artisan, then moved to a technical college where he was employed as an Instructor and a Lecturer. He went on to become the Principal of a technical college, as well as a Manager for a cluster of colleges for various portfolios.

He holds numerous diplomas, an MBA and a doctoral degree in educational management.

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