By Malanie Mulholland, human-capital and skills-development executive at the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa.
The notion that vocational and technical jobs are inferior has led many young people unwilling or unsuited for academic study to frustration, feelings of failure, hopelessness and depression. It has also led to a decline in vocational education and training enrolment.
Parents and teachers wrongly perceive vocational education as meant for students who are academically challenged with limited career prospects.
To deliver 21st-century artisans, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges are undergoing a rapid transformation and grooming a generation of professional artisans acquainted with trade skills and the soft skills required when the fourth industrial revolution arrives. The colleges produce critical thinkers, problem solvers and design thinkers.
SA needs a strong technical skills base to grow the economy, and to combine this with entrepreneurial development as existing businesses cannot absorb skills without reaching a breaking point. A successful vocational and professional education and training system can facilitate growth, entrepreneurship and prosperity for citizens and SA.
In February 2012, former president Jacob Zuma announced the government’s plan to initiate a massive infrastructure investment programme. It consists of 18 strategic integrated projects which address a socio-economic opportunity or challenge — like artisan skills such as electricians, boilermakers, plumbers, welders and pipe fitters, which are in short supply.
Unfortunately, there is no skills force of qualified artisans to complete or maintain these projects.
In March, Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandor met business leaders to secure partnerships to implement the centres of specialisation programme at TVET colleges to produce artisans and entrepreneurs across a range of economic sectors. The programme aims to secure partnerships between industry and 26 colleges, enabling the training of artisans in 13 priority trade areas that will support the strategic products.
Bricklayers, electricians, boilermakers, plumbers, automotive and diesel mechanics, carpenters, joiners, welders, riggers and fitters and turners will be trained.
The programme should contribute towards reducing unemployment among the 7.2-million people between the ages of 15 and 34 who are not in employment, education or training.
Businesses in the metals and engineering sector are already committed to skills development, particularly in artisan as well as apprenticeship development.
The Department of Higher Education and Training’s aptly named Decade of the Artisan (2014 to 2024) allows companies to enable and support artisan development by offering workplace opportunities. These businesses are contributing to a continuous supply of suitably qualified artisans to sustain industries and support economic growth in SA.
The focus on artisan skills — which are in high demand — aims to ensure that the government’s strategic projects will be constructed and maintained using high-quality, skilled and local artisans. This is a triumph for the economy. The training will simultaneously contribute to the job creation and poverty alleviation goals set out in the National Development Plan.
The public TVET college system is ideally placed to respond to the call from industry and the state for more skilled artisans. The colleges, which had faced challenges in the past, are now able to train skilled artisans and work with industry partners.
They now have an opportunity to develop sites of good practice which others can eventually follow.
However, society’s confidence in the TVET sector must change. Evidence of that change will be the colleges becoming institutions of choice for students after matric and partners of choice in training for industry employers. The provision of fully subsided, free further education and training has been extended in 2018 to all current and future poor and working-class students at all public TVET colleges. These students will be funded through grants, not loans.
All stakeholders in society need to come together to rebrand and reposition TVET colleges into world-class and state-of-the-art facilities that can produce the much-needed skills that SA needs.
It is important to change the mind-sets of the youth, parents and teachers who see vocational training as blue-collar education. Artisans will play a vital role in SA’s development, and more must be done to increase the academic opportunities for students who choose this path.