A South African Perspective

Conselho Empresarial dos Brics. Conferência: As Competências do Futuro nos BRICS.rBrasília (DF) 14.11.2019 – Foto: José Paulo Lacerda

A colleague in the South African Manufacturing Working group tells a story about Manufacturing facilities in the future that will need only 2 employees, i.e. 1 human and 1 dog. The Human is to ensure the factory runs smoothly and the dog is to keep the human awake as there is so little to do.


In order to look at future skills in South Africa (SA) we need to understand the history of SA and the impact the history has on the skills landscape in 2019. 

In South Africa and a number of other countries, employers complain that they cannot find workers with skills their business require and at the same time many graduates face difficulties in finding employment that matches their qualifications.

The OECD, in its Adapting to Changing Skill Needs report (OECD, 2017a) reported a number of statistics regarding mismatches in SA. In 2015, 52.3% of South African workers were employed in an occupation for which they did not have the correct qualification. About 27.9% of individuals worked in occupations for which a higher level of qualification would be required, i.e. they are underqualified for their occupation. A further 24.4% was employed in occupations that normally require a lower level of qualification (overqualification). Mismatch in terms of field-of- study is also higher in South Africa (32.6%) than in Europe (31.5%).

The shortage of skills in South Africa has become a core issue in discussions on economic growth, service delivery, social development and productivity and has resulted in skills shortages being at the heart of many government strategies. These skill shortages have continued, and in some cases escalated, despite a number of policy interventions designed to develop and improve the skills of the South African existing and future workforce. 

At the same time the skills landscape in South Africa must address the history of the SA, addressing issues such as exclusion, poor infrastructure and quality of education.

The South African skills development system is premised on the assumption that the schooling system will produce graduates with the requisite foundational skills so that these individuals are ‘more employable’ and ‘more trainable’. This is assumed to increase the propensity of employers to invest in training, as better-schooled employees are perceived to have higher levels of productivity and employer competitiveness.

Educational attainment has increased substantially over the years but a large share of South Africans still leave the education system before finishing upper secondary education. Furthermore, South African students in secondary education perform poorly on international tests, suggesting that the quality of initial education is low.

Due to the many challenges described above the South African skills sector focusses on skills needed in the economy to address current skills gaps leaving South Africa permanently playing “catch up”. This “catch up” scenario will be exacerbated by already high unemployment levels in South Africa and new challenges facing the South African economy.

Skills Challenges

South Africa (SA) has a number of challenges relating to skills as shown in the images above, these will be addressed in greater detail below.

Basic Education

A recent World Bank study reports that 60% of children in low- and middle-income countries are not proficient in math’s and reading, with estimates of this affecting over 60 million children in the African Continent

A number of factors contribute to these basic education issues, these include historic issues linked to apartheid, for example, poor infrastructure, distances to get to schools and lack of transport, poverty which results in hunger at schools, lack of schooling in home languages, teacher skill levels, as well as social issues resulting in children not receiving support such as homework support, infrastructure and resources at schools and large classes.

Perceptions of desirable qualifications

White collar, office jobs are  perceived as desirable and as a way to get ahead in your life, with these jobs requiring University qualifications. However, this is not just a perception as in SA graduates with University degrees have a lowest level of unemployment and there is a salary differential of 150% between university graduates and matriculants with similar potential and characteristics In SA a university degree really can change your circumstance much more than any technical or vocational qualification.

Post School Education and Training system

The post school education and training system(PSET) has multiple layers, ranging from universities, technical universities, TVETS, Community Education and Training centres, Sectoral Training Authorities (SETAs) each with a different target market and focus. Whilst the post school education and training system(PSET) has made vast improvements such as increasing enrolments and completion, inclusivity, reductions in drop our rates and assistance in funding students, the system faces a number of challenges, these include still high dropout rates, with 1st year university dropout rates of over 12%, funding, home support, curriculum and equipment.

A recent report on PSET by the Department of Higher Education and Training highlighted challenges with quality and efficiency. As 4IR changes the demand for skills this combined with a focus on teaching not learning which will exacerbate challenges caused by 4IR.

Technical skills and equipment

TVETS have to pay in line with Government salary structures but qualified artisans can earn much more in business which makes it difficult to retain qualified artisan instructors. Many TVETS also use old equipment and curricula, with a TVET Executive recently telling an audience that students in a specific course still used the same equipment and curricula as he had when he trained in the 1970s!


With unemployment rates amongst youth at exceptionally high rates and 2 million students leaving the post school education and training system every year and with population demographics of 35% of the SA pollution between the ages of 15-34 and 60% of the total population under 34 years of age, this challenge will in all likelihood continue to grow. .

Reskilling and upskilling

With low economic growth in South Africa, many people are being retrenched. We have substantial funding for reskilling of these people but need to reskill in them in relevant skills. The World Economic Forum refers to the need for a reskilling revolution, this is especially true in SA with workers needing to be upskilled to remain competitive and to allow businesses to grow in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) world.

For both reskilling and upskilling initiatives, SA needs a clear strategy of what skill sets must be a focus for training.

Stakeholder Relationships

SA has a large disconnect between industry, government and learning institutions which results in duplication of effort in some instances and in qualifications and curricula that are not relevant to the needs of business.

Fourth Industrial Revolution: Opportunities and challenges

As with every previous Industrial Revolution, the Fourth will present both opportunities and challenges.

The greatest opportunities lie in the ability to utilise changes in technology to decrease inequality and to leapfrog traditional development steps such as African adoption of mobile phones vs the traditional pathway for fixed telephone lines. Additionally, we can leverage technology to improve service delivery by Government and to fundamentally change the education landscape.  Our demographic profiles also provide substantial opportunities in the changing 4IR world.

The greatest challenge lies with SA  displacement of people and even greater unemployment if we do not get the  skills landscape correct. Another challenge is our ability to respond to the rate of change, particularly in Government. If a new  curriculum requires 3-5 years of development and 3 years of training to deliver its first graduates the curriculum Is outdated long before students complete the programme.

Addressing skills challenges in South Africa 

The South African President appointed a Presidential 4IR commission. This commission, which began work in June 2019, is tasked to deliver a comprehensive strategy for Government departments to implement. The commission includes a number of cross functional teams, in work streams covering skills, such as:

  • Subcommittee on skills and the future of work
  • Stream on digital skills and transformation, digital infrastructure, digital government, Innovations and policy
  • Human resources in 4IR stream

The Department of Basic Education has introduced coding and robotics as school subjects

The BRICS 4IR group is a cross Government Business Council Work group, with a proposed name of PartNIR, i.e. partnership on the new industrial revolution has proposed a number of projects, including skills and infrastructure projects

We have a large digital divide in Sa and various Government departments are implementing free WIFI in traditionally disadvantaged communities

There is also large volumes of research and many implementation projects in Sectoral Training Authorities, learning institutions and private companies. All these parties should agree to collaborate and not duplicate work.

Conselho Empresarial dos Brics. Conferência: As Competências do Futuro nos BRICS. Painel interativo com a participação de especialistas dos cinco países em mercado de trabalho e indústria 4.0. Sherrie Donaldson, África do Sul.rBrasília (DF) 14.11.2019 – Foto: José Paulo Lacerda

Possible BRICS solutions

A number of proposed initiatives could solve 4IR challenges across BRICS. These include:

  • A BRICS skills research project to identify demand and supply of future skills
  • BRICS Skills Colleges – concept, ideation, branding etc
  • Funding campaign – to facilitate SDWG projects
  • Development of new curricula (future skills) and standards
  • Implement a Tvet network with the same objectives as the BRICS Universities Network
    • to consolidate BRICS education programmes
    • to interact and share knowledge and experiences;
    • to consolidate collaboration
  • PartNIR agreement signed – projects supported
  • Leverage exchange programs
    • Teacher exchange, including education and training for teachers
    • Student exchange
    • Equipment and technology exchange
    • Knowledge exchange, including lessons learnt on closing gap between Government, academics and business and how new technology curricula were implemented and lessons learnt

In closing delivery on solutions for skills challenges in 4IR is essential if we want to ensure employment and avoid factories staffed by 1 man and a dog.

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