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       PRESS RELEASE

To eradicate poverty, let us prioritise education and skills development

20 February 2012

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

It's always an honour to listen to the state of the nation. 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.

So as our parliamentarians prepare to analyse the president’s state of the nation address during the presidential debate ahead of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s budget speech on April 28th, 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 skills and education so as to take advantage of the economic opportunities that become available in our country 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 need not only to invest more resources in education sectors; we also need to review the systems and curricula we have in order to ensure that they respond to demands in the labour market.

Through education we can break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. The evidence 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 the continent's 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 one billion by 2040, is unlikely to find meaningful employment.

In its 2012 report the AEO, which the African Development Bank produces jointly with United Nations Development Programme, United Nations 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 programs to African needs.”

The report continues: "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," notes the publication.

"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," the AEO report said.

So where must our beloved country start? 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 kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.

In countries that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, studies show that learners 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 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation shows that for every $1 invested in education and youth skills in developing countries generates $10-$15 in economic growth. Around 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all students in poor countries had basic reading skills.

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

You do not need to be a genius to realise that the more education you have, 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 after 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 that improving our country’s learning level won't 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. Students 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 upskilling 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, 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," said Rose.

What we need most are centres of excellence of learning and skill acquisition to meet criteria and achieve competencies that are internationally 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.

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LIZA VAN WYK, CEO ASTROTECH, Johannesburg
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Email: liza@astrotech.co.za
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