Twenty years into skills development


Education is considered to be the backbone of skills development. With maths and science skills in high demand, companies need to focus on training in these fields with renewed vigour.

The recent ArcelorMittal Skills Development Summit that took place in August in Pretoria saw a number of stakeholders and experts in the field of skills development contributing to what could be described as a symposium and critical debate on one of our country’s burning issues.

Speaking at the conference, ArcelorMittal Group Manager: Talent, Learning & Development and Resourcing for South Africa, Terrence Harrison, expanded on the company’s road walked regarding skills and training, and elaborated on the importance of education in maths, science and engineering.

“I believe that education is really important to the country. It makes the country tick. If we look at other growing economies in the world, there are a couple of factors they all have in common. One of them is they have really good mathematics and science capability. So their mathematics and science capability at school-leaving level and at university level is really great. Now that is something we need to improve on as a nation,” he said.

Harrison said that since the advent of democracy 20 years ago, South Africa has not been effective in addressing the need for proper training in this regard. His first point of critique on the matter refers back to the implementation of the Skills Development Act that did away with apprenticeships and introduced what we know today as learnerships.

“A lot of state-owned enterprises stopped training or reduced their training capability, and training centres closed down. Companies took the viewpoint that their apprenticeships have stopped, and since they could no longer do them, they decided to wait for the learnerships to come along. Now, the learnerships will not come along on their own. It is up to us as companies or us as individuals within companies to generate those unit standards. So you can imagine how we declined in the first number of years to the point that apprenticeships almost became extinct,” Harrison said.

With training being a vital component of skills development in the country, Harrison’s concern with the initial decrease thereof is coupled with advice to companies on its importance. “We reduced our sizes and we are busy going through engineering programmes to make the company more profitable as a result. Sometimes leaders in a company see training as an expense, something you can do without, but it is not something we can do without. It is in the times of trouble, in the financial crunch time, when it is exactly the right time to train and develop your staff. When you come out of that crunch, you will have skilled people, while everybody else will be scrambling for skills.

“We talk about the skills crisis, but there are a lot of skills out there. Our skilled people are out there; we need to find them, entice them and engage them, bring them in and retain them. It is critical. But we need to train them first of all—and that is very important,” he said.

Reflecting on ArcelorMittal’s road walked regarding training and skills development, Harrison refers to a balanced attitude that denotes both self-reliance and collaboration to achieve proper training outcomes. “We cannot be totally reliant on the market producing. We have to develop our own skills. So we took a conscious decision to say, We are going to develop our own skills and we are going to be self-reliant in terms of skills development. However, we are not going to be selfish. We are going to go over and above our own heads and we will develop far in excess of what we need, so that we can produce extra skills, get people to have valid qualifications, gain experience and release them to the market, which will be beneficial for the South African economy.

“Everybody is talking about the skills shortage and how it impacts on us, how the growth rates of the economy are affected, which is all true. We took a collaborative approach and said, Let us not do it on our own. Yes, we are a big company, and we can afford to set up our own training centres and get our own staff and train our own people. But we are not living on an island. We should collaborate with different companies, different colleges, governmental institutions and so on. And it is working.”

The challenges

Harrison used a metaphor to describe one of the challenges we are facing in skills development at the moment and highlighted the importance of a common direction or goal in achieving sustainable and proper results. To him, skills development at this stage is like a cart with horses mounted in every direction, while we should be focusing on a common direction or goal.

“One of the main goals at this stage is de-stigmatising science and mathematics. We need to get people excited about these subjects and have companies actively involved with training institutions.

“We want people to get excited about mathematics and science and to engage with it, because it is a great thing. We have also committed to technical business skills partnerships, often referred to as the six-pack. We partner with our local colleges and we are assisting them with lecturer development, which is critical. Take engineers out of your training centres, put them at colleges and allow them to lecture at the colleges for three months. Then bring those lecturers into your organisation and teach them—show them what is actually happening. In the college industry, the average age of a lecturer is 25 years and they often have zero industry experience. They have never seen the things that they are teaching. So it is critical that we capacitate the lecturers in colleges,” he said.

Harrison urges companies to engage with local universities in such a way that they find themselves embedded in curriculum development. He jokingly adds that in certain colleges, maths and science classes are in fact closer to history classes. “It is important to get on those advisory committees and ensure the latest technology is embedded in our traditional technikons and universities. Make sure you are also involved in all kinds of curriculum development. A number of companies here have been involved in developing unit standards in the past and going forward. We have dramatically increased our pipelines.”

Most of ArcelorMittal’s successfully trained students have completed their degree in four years, as opposed to the national average of 6.1 to 7 years. Harrison said this success is not a result of choosing “the right students”, but rather that of careful nurturing. “Provide them with a cradle-to-the-grave concept. Help them, coach them, mentor them and really assist them when it is needed. There is no other way of doing it.”

Skills shortage

The shortage of engineering skills is, however, not an exclusively South African phenomenon, as Harrison pointed out. He indicates that engineering studies or science-related degrees have dropped 25% globally in the last 10 years. He also highlighted the importance of getting more women interested in the field.

“We all know that shortage of skills is a worldwide phenomenon; people are not studying scientific qualifications anymore. I always say in 10 or 20 years’ time, you will have a lot of people trying to sell products, but there will be no products to sell because there will be nobody to design them. We need to increase that and we specifically need to get women in there. They are up and coming in the engineering fraternity, but we really need to give them a boost. A total of 39% of global businesses are currently struggling with skills. They do not have the right people or the right skills,” he said.

Empowering the immediate environment and community is another important aspect. Harrison referred to some of their training programmes that have trained people from the community to generate their own companies and start using technology. As a result, they have donated two schools to basic education over the last number of years, one in Mthatha and one in Mamelodi.

“We have built a clinic that we handed over to the Department of Health in Sebogeng. We have also built a number of houses for very needy people in our immediate vicinities. So the science centres in our three areas are not only there to make sure we get better entries and a better prepared individual, but it is there to make sure we introduce science, technology and engineering to our local townships so that people can understand what is out there and what kind of careers are available. We really believe in growing from within,” he said. With training and job creation fundamentally linked, internships are another vital component to sustainability.

“We have internship programmes, which I would suggest you entrench in your training centres to make sure that once engineers finish university, they go through their internships—which is a structure development programme—with coaches and mentors. We do it for 18 months for our technicians and a year for the artisans. Once they have qualified through their apprenticeship programme, they go into a one-year formalised coaching or mentoring programme and we ensure they are ready for the workplace.

“It is really about taking them out of a township school, educating them and getting them to that kind of level. It is a great success story and it is something we can all do and that we should be doing. We really take immense pride in our graduates for that,” he said.

Harrison concluded with a reiteration of the importance of partnerships and urged companies to focus on producing proudly South African products and professionals. “Partnering is great; it is needed. It’s all fine to educate our children, but we need to create jobs for them, too. Innovation and entrepreneurship are not subjects you can teach at school. They take time and experience. Let’s train our people and design and develop our own products. Let us go the proudly South African way.”

Lindsay King

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