Despite a crippling skills shortage and a low tax base, South Africa has failed to follow international trends to extend retirement ages.
The country needs to keep older people in the workforce longer to avoid shedding experienced employees. So says Liza van Wyk, CEO of training groups AstroTech and BizTech.
"Recently, a Skills Declaration was signed in Pretoria that repeated pledges we have heard over many years with little or nothing new. The skills shortage is retarding economic growth so seriously we have to look at more practical strategies."
Van Wyk applauds a stronger emphasis on artisan training, but said more quick-fix strategies needed to be examined.
"Our courses are packed with young managers who are struggling with basic skills sets, whether poor comprehension of financial management, human relations or information technology," she says.
"We get support staff on courses struggling with reading comprehension, basic numerical skills and a poor ethos toward customer service. Many are recent graduates from an education system that government admits has failed and yet companies and government continue to force experienced staff to retire at 60 and 65, when successful economies like Germany and Japan allow employees to stay on the job well into their 70s."
Minister of Education Blade Nzimande gave an idea of the challenge when he noted that: "Only 33 percent of academics have PhDs (and) and can competently guide research students.
"The biggest research and development challenge lies in South Africa's ageing and shrinking population of academics that will soon retire, leaving a serious continuity gap in key research infrastructure.
"We have yet to increase the number of black and women scientists, technologists and engineers in our academic ranks."
Van Wyk notes that it will take years to develop and replace the cadres of skills that have been retiring over the past decade and are due to retire soon.
"Instead of losing highly experienced individuals, wise institutions need to keep them and benefit from their skills. Productivity also needs to be a key performance criteria linked to wage increases and job progress or loss."
South Africa has ranked lowest among developing and developed nations on skills rankings in the last two years for maths and science; is at the bottom of 50 countries for productivity; and spends up to three times less on skills development than equivalent nations.
The Skills Declaration noted: "Many South African learners are ill-prepared to undertake further learning when they leave school and cannot access post-school education and training opportunities.
"A low-skill, low-productivity, low-wage economy is unsustainable in the long term and is incompatible with poverty reduction. This is the vicious circle of inadequate education, poor training, low productivity and poor quality jobs and low wages."
According to Van Wyk, the Declaration tends to focus on past wrongs, than on practical, easy to implement solutions that have rapid results.
"With a global economic crisis, reduced trade and a rapidly growing population of which more than a third have no work, we need to be more creative."
She points out too that although wages are low in some areas of the South African economy - "given the very low productivity from this economy, wages are high relative to performance".
"There is a mismatch between demands from labour and what they give back in return. We have seen a rise in government sending individuals for more training in the last two years with a corresponding drop from some of South Africa's primary economic sectors.
"Unless we find constructive ways to keep skills on the job while deepening the talent base and incentivising it to remain in South Africa by cutting crime and in proving opportunity, our future economic scenario will be very challenging."
She supports Nzimande's statement that: "The outcome which sets the agenda for our work is: "A skilled and capable workforce to support an inclusive growth path."
"This requires a major shake-up in the higher education and training system. It means we all need to do things differently and synergise our efforts particularly in the area of skills training."
She welcomes too, his statement that: "My department will also place at the centre of all the synergies required for an effective post-schooling system, the question of the recognition of prior learning (RPL). I will be asking the qualifications and quality councils to urgently work on a framework for RPL as soon as possible."
Van Wyk says: "We see many talented people who have not been able to afford tertiary education but who perform with singular talent in the workplace, we need to follow international models for recognition of prior learning to reward real achievement and to encourage its development."
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