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South Africa needs practical skills

engineering news article updated

It is a fact that companies constantly struggle to find people with the skills needed for the smooth running of their business. Surveys on business conditions in South Africa show that the shortage of people with suitable skills is among the top reasons why businesses cannot expand.

In 2008, research showed that there was a skill shortage of approximately 22 000 chartered accountants in South Africa.  It has been estimated that we need to add around 13 000 engineers of all disciplines to the skills pool in South Africa annually to satisfy demand.  In actual fact, only about 10% of that number graduate every year.

Greater shortage at lower levels
The shortage of skilled people at the lower level in the economy is much larger than the shortages of skills on a higher level. This is a complete imbalance in the supply of skills in the South African economy.  
For every engineer, there needs to be a few supporting engineering technologists.  For every project a multitude of skilled artisans are required to physically implement the details of the project. Everyone of these skilled artisans, accounting technicians and engineering technologists need other skilled professionals like plumbers, electricians and mechanics to support their daily needs. It is at these intermediate levels that shortages of skilled personnel are actually even more pronounced than at the higher levels. A skilled boilermaker or fitter and turner can realistically earn up to R 30.000 per month in South Africa.  

The upside down Training pyramid in South Africa. Thousands of people graduate from universities every year with qualifications that give them “soft skills” in the social sciences, but relatively few qualify with hard skills that have practical application. A person who has practical technical skills is just or even more employable than someone with high level theoretical skills. This does not mean that social sciences are unimportant, but merely indicated that that there is a relative oversupply of people in many social sciences disciplines.

The imbalance can be illustrated by the fact that in 2009, there were more than 690 000students at comprehensive universities in south Africa, but only about 140 000 students at university of technology and around 520 000 at further education and training (FET) colleges, although a number of these are only enrolled for short courses. Comprehensive universities therefore have around half of the total student population, with the more technical institutions sharing the rest. These proportions are what give us the upside down training pyramid and the unsuitable skills mix.

Anyone can become skilled unfortunately there seems to be a perception in South Africa that it isn’t glamorous to do Physical work in Blue overalls. Young people associate working in an office and never getting their hands dirty as “high class”. This is totally wrong as all types of jobs deserve respect, as long as the work is done well. This is why it is important to be skilled and being skilled means that you are able to do your job very well. Everyone cannot become chartered accountants, lawyers or engineers, but anyone can become skilled in one or another field. With hard skills in a technical field, anyone can earn a good salary.

What we need to realize is that what South Africa needs most are people with hard skills to carry the weight of the economy. While it is also important that we have enough people with “soft skills” the work these people do is meaningless if the reality on the ground is not solid by hard working artisans, technicians, nurses, designers, electricians and mechanics.

Lastly don’t stress because you could not get into university you don’t need a degree to make your life and the lives of other South Africans better. Learn a technical skill and your future will be bright. - Careers Unlimited for Students