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South Africa needs one government ministry to drive skills development

May 2013

For many years now we have known that compared with white South Africans, black citizens have higher unemployment rates, less access to the top jobs in the workplace, and lower wages. As economic recession bites, times get even tougher.

In its 13th edition, the Employment Equity Commission said whites still dominate South Africa’s top management positions. Reflecting the public and private sectors, the report shows whites constituted 72.6 percent of top management positions in the country last year, down from 81.5 percent in 2002.  Blacks occupied 12.3 percent of top management positions in 2012, compared to 10 percent in 2002.
Coloureds occupied 4.6 percent of top management positions in 2012, compared to 3.4 percent in 2002; and In Indians 7.3 percent, from five percent.

The number of foreigners in top management positions in 2012 was 3.1 percent, compared to zero in 2002.

Whenever these kinds of figures are bandied, the affirmative action debate intensifies, some saying the policy has not worked, some saying it must be intensified, while others call for its eradication.

Lest we forget that at the heart of the affirmative action approach is the notion that statistical disparities such as the one released by the Employment Equity Commission prove that it will take time to address the employment equity dilemma and hasten apartheid disparities.

Policies that explicitly address race remain crucial to a progressive strategy and to the continuing quest for racial justice in our beloved rainbow nation. However, in an era of subtle opposition to affirmative action as we know it, we need to continuously address disparities without putting too much emotional attachment to the work at hand.

But why are such disparities difficult to overcome? Because all kinds of jobs need particular skills, particular experience and particular orientations. And none of these things is randomly distributed.

In our case, disparities have their roots in the three century old history of racial segregation. The time has come for us to let go of the ready-made excuse that racial discrimination is responsible for all our socio-economic ills and begin to do something.

It is time for all of us, black and white, to accept responsibility. After all, the gap between have-nots and haves is growing more severe at the time when a well-trained workforce is more and more the only foundation on which the success of a business is built upon.

Granted, some companies still fear that too much of training will only make their employees more marketable. Companies must remember that the consequences can be worse if employees who are not given due training decide to stay with the company.

Such companies should change their mindset and think more positively.  After all, even if their trained employees moved on, at least the company would know that they had done their best and had provided the employee with marketable skills. After all, isn't that what smart partnership is all about?

Also it is a well -known fact that the more employees are engaged in interesting, challenging work and have opportunities for growth, the more likely they are to be highly productive and stay with their company.

Therefore, talent development and deployment strategies are critical. Everyone knows that growth and profitability is never sustainable without an ongoing supply of a highly skilled workforce and the means to keep those skills up to date.

One critical success factor for meeting the skills challenge is delivering training in the right format, in the right place and at the right time, for both the employer and the learner.

But the complexities of today's workplace mean that no one individual can get much accomplished by themselves. Most challenges and opportunities are systemic. We need bold and coordinated leadership. After all, leadership is distributed and change now requires a collective sense and a coordinated set of actions.

It is impossible to get the best to serve the country in any field of human endeavour unless we continously address employment equity and continuously work on our desire to help the disadvantaged among us.

The compassion we offer to the less fortunate and the less gifted must continue. However, no allowances should be made to accommodate mediocrity and laziness; hence everyone should take bold steps on building up workforce engagement and productivity.

Indeed, upskilling is the key to economic growth in 21st  century: employers are leading the drive to ensure they secure and develop the talent they need to meet and exceed their stretching corporate ambitions. But how can managers identify those people best suited for leadership training? 

By looking for people who demonstrate initiative, who volunteer for projects and make suggestions about what they are doing and do whatever it takes to get the job done--without being asked and without knowing they'll be paid for it.

What will be the best way to address all of the ills of skills development? If countries such as Scotland and Canada have ministries which drive skills development, why can’t we? Scotland has a Minister for Skills and Lifelong Learning while Canada has a Minister of Skills Development and Labour. Many other countries have dedicated skills ministries.

The duty of the ministry would be to centralise and nationalise entrepreneurship training and development schemes for the previously disadvantaged through public-private partnership for setting up new industrial training institutes to improve the skill levels of historically oppressed communities.

Such a ministry would ensure that all employers, government or private must introduce development programmes for skills to create an atmosphere which strives for excellence at an international level.

This is not just about being competitive, but about the survival of companies and a country in the global economy and the continued prosperity of our nation.

I know there are a lot of skills development initiatives such as the Skills Summits, Human Resource Development Council, Human Resource Development Strategy, the Post-School Education and Training, The National Plan Vision 2030, the 23 Skills Education Training Authorities (Setas).  The Skills Development Act legislates that companies paying levies must appoint a skills development facilitator to liaise with the Seta with which it is registered.

The problem is all of these initiatives, bodies and organisations are not centrally coordinated. Some work in silos. There is no day to day coordination.

That is why skills development experts say skills training in our country has floundered, resulting in a skills shortage, while at the same time there are millions of unemployed people, most of whom are unskilled.

The experts point to many reasons for the failure of skills development strategies, including that they are based on poor research and that means inappropriate training programmes are implemented, and that skills strategies do not focus on growth industries.

What is needed is a holistic approach by one government ministry to create one solid framework whereby knowledge and skills are developed; where society puts a premium on ideas and the country values companies which spend time and money developing the skills of previously disadvantaged workers.

We all know that the development of manpower capabilities requires an environment that is conducive to intellectual growth and stimulation. Such an environment would encourage and promote the rational pursuit of knowledge, reward healthy competition and be pragmatic in its approach. We need initiatives for building a competitive and world-class knowledge South Africa, with a first world mindset.

How else can we garner the best and the brightest to serve the country if we are not resolute about developing and nurturing those who have been denied opportunities for decades if not centuries?

I am not asserting that existing affirmative action programmes should be abandoned. I believe the best way is to create one centralised plan, a government ministry to nurture the country’s competitive streak and restore the self-belief and inspire and encourage South Africa’s workforce to earn their stripes.

Liza van Wyk is CEO of AstroTech Training who offer leadership development training. Visit or call 0861 AstroTech

landline: 011 582 3200
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