South Africa has a scarcity of skills in key areas, including those highlighted by the recent construction industry survey. The government is aware of this and an aggressive training response is under way.

The situation is not as dire as some may think. But it is crucial for employers and the government to work together to produce these skills. The nature of vocational education and skills development is such that theoretical education in colleges and universities must be accompanied by practical experience in actual workplaces.

Following the launch of the government’s National Infrastructure Plan in 2012, I was mandated to address skills development. A dedicated unit has been set up for this purpose. Together with technical experts overseeing all of the Strategic Integrated Projects (SIPs), it developed a list of scarce skills by May last year, which includes all skills listed in the construction industry survey.

In August last year I launched occupational teams for each of the 90 or so scarce skills. Each is made up of an employer representative and a representative from one of the colleges or universities who teach programmes leading to that occupation as well as professional bodies and other training specialists. The work of these teams is to investigate the shortage problem and to propose concrete solutions.

The reports of the occupational teams were received at the beginning of the year and consolidated into a single report. This outlines the training required and the costs of providing it, as well as proposals for improving qualifications and assuring the quality of learners’ achievements.

The sector education and training authorities (Setas) have committed close to R800 million to this initiative and additional resources are still being sought.

The National Skills Fund has prioritised scarce skills in its disbursement strategy and its allocations include, for example, R200m for state-owned companies to expand the production of qualified artisans. It also provides R500m for special bursaries to undergraduate studies in scarce skills areas, targeting more than 14 000 financially needy learners.

The strengthening of the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges – formerly FET colleges – is a major priority of the government. Enrolments have almost doubled over the past five years. The Department of Higher Education and the colleges are working hard – and with some success – to improve the quality of training in the colleges in partnership with organisations such as the National Business Initiative and the Swiss-SA Co-operation Initiative, among others.

These organisations recognise that college-based learning on its own will never be sufficient. A significant workplace learning component needs to be integrated into all vocational programmes and increased participation of industry in training is vital.

Our universities will also expand their enrolments, particularly those professionals in scarce skills areas.

The department is engaging with professional bodies to help with this process. But the reluctance of employers to provide workplace experience is a major hindrance to the effort of graduates getting professional registration.

What is clear is that while Setas, colleges and universities are responding to the call, these interventions will fail if the employers do not come to the party. While a growing number do train workers, many do not. If they do not, they have no right to complain about a shortage of skilled labour or expect TVET colleges or universities to produce ready-to-employ workers.

Workers can only gain work experience in the workplace. Without that, they will never become competent. We must work together to find the best way of producing a skilled workforce. page 16


* Dr Blade Nzimande, MP, is the Minister of Higher Education and Training.