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Let us prioritise education and skills development

March 5 2013 at 08:00am

Our constitution requires that each year the president of the country reports on the state of our nation, outlines the government’s accomplishments over the past year and lays out its national priorities and legislative agenda for the year to come.

It is always an honour to listen to the State of the Nation address. It is a pity that the president’s speech usually becomes a scrambled egg, a cacophony of contributions from all of his ministries.

For me, if he were to choose one theme to be driven during the next five years, the speech would be more inspiring and get all of us to work.

What would I have loved President Jacob Zuma’s theme to be for the next five years? Without a doubt, education and skills development.

After all, the greatest challenge we continue to face is the critical need to restore growth and create jobs in our economy and these can never be realised without education and skills development.

This commitment and investment should be at the heart of our attempt and priority to drive a modern economy to make sure that our people have the skills and education to take advantage of the economic opportunities that become available and drive innovation and prosperity.

Education is the surest bet to get all segments of society involved in and benefiting from economic growth and transformation. Therefore, we must not only invest more resources in education sectors; we also need to review the systems and curricula we have in order to ensure they respond to demands in the labour market.

Through education we can break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Evidence for this can be found in any nation that has prioritised education and skills development.

Last year, a study by the African Economic Outlook (AEO) found that although Africa’s population is more and better educated today than at any other time in history, the mismatch between their qualifications and the skills sets that different countries’ labour markets require means that the continent’s growing labour force, estimated to hit 1 billion by 2040, is unlikely to find meaningful employment.

In its 2012 report, the AEO, which the African Development Bank produces jointly with UN Development Programme, the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, attributes the “mismatch to the absence of linkages between education systems and employers, university systems that have traditionally focused on educating for public sector employment without any regard to tailoring their programmes to African needs”.

The report states: “Graduates in technical fields such as engineering and information technology (IT) have less problems finding employment than those from the social sciences or humanities. At the same time, these latter fields have much higher enrolment and graduation numbers.”

It continues: “According to African recruitment and temporary work agencies, the most difficult sectors in which to find candidates with tertiary education are those that need specific technical qualifications, such as the extractive industries, logistics, the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, manufacturing in general and agri-business.”

So, what should our national priorities be? Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. And for poor children who need help the most, this lack of access to pre-school education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.

In countries that make it a priority to educate their youngest children, studies show that pupils grow up more likely to read and enjoy mathematics at grade level, graduate from high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own.

A report by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation shows that every $1 (R9) invested in education and youth skills in developing countries generates $10 to $15 in economic growth. About 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all students in poor countries had basic reading skills.

So it is our duty and responsibility to do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give them that chance while they are still young.

You do not need to be a genius to realise that the more educated you are, the more likely you are to have a job and work your way up to economic freedom.

South Africans must have access to the education and training that today’s jobs require. We must make sure that our country remains a place where everyone who’s willing to work hard has the chance to do so and enjoy life.

So, Mr President and parliamentarians, expanding access to early childhood education is one of the smartest things we can do as a nation to ensure our country’s prosperous future.

Research shows that early childhood education leads to increased educational achievement and employability later in life. Study upon study has proven that investing in early childhood education is one of the easiest ways to ensure we have a workforce that can compete on the international stage.

We all know improving our country’s learning level would not be easy.

Around the world, rural and far-flung areas generally lag behind more prosperous urban centres where commercial development is easier and teachers are willing to relocate to.

It is our duty to make sure that every one of our nine provinces, cities and communities should commit that year-round classes would be conducted. That pupils would wear uniforms. Superior teachers would be hired. Tardiness and truancy would be punished firmly. More parent and community involvement would be sought.

For those who are at work, companies should boost their skills, and improve the climate for job satisfaction and retention.

Retraining of staff encourages economic diversification. Targeted up skilling and economic diversification has the tendency to create new jobs. It is imperative that employers encourage their staff to constantly develop their skills.

Pauline Rose, the director of the European Finance Association Global Monitoring Report, said: “Creating jobs on its own is not going to stop youth unemployment. Young people still need the skills to do them. Competitive economies need young people to join their workforce with skills that are adaptable to the workplace, experience in doing a job and an ability to keep up with changing technologies.

“More needs to be done to reach young people at risk of leaving school early by making education more relevant to the world of work, such as through apprenticeships. Failing to invest in the potential of young people who want nothing more than to find a good job is a wasted opportunity for growth. Young people’s frustration will grow if something is not done urgently.”

What we need most are centres of excellence of learning and skills acquisition to meet criteria and achieve competencies that are globally recognised, transferable and can be benchmarked against similar qualifications across the globe.

Therefore, Mr President, parliamentarians and fellow South Africans, the greatest challenge facing us lies in competing competently and reaping rewards in the knowledge economy. This can only be achieved by investing heavily in education and skills development.

Liza van Wyk is the chief executive of AstroTech Training, which offers leadership and business skills development training.