Job-hopping crisis

2009-06-02 00:00

MY national service includes sitting on selection committees for some government departments when senior posts are advertised. This experience gave me insight into why we may not be able to solve the skills crisis in our country. Time after time young people in their 20s and 30s who had hardly spent a year in a deputy director or director’s job would be running to the next interview in another department for a higher salary and better perks. Because of the shortage of high-level skills in the civil service, the other department would simply snap up the youthfully mobile employee without too many questions asked.

The one moment the young civil servant is in the formerDepartment of Foreign Affairs, the next moment he is in the Department of Housing (or Human Settlements, as it is now called). Just like that.

It is of course completely natural for an employee to seek higher earnings and status by moving around. But here’s the problem. We all know that the actual competence required for a job is not really attained through university training but on-the-job. The newly graduated teacher has some broad concepts and skills in her head but until she goes through the daily grind of teaching six classes a day, she cannot really learn what it is like to be a teacher. This holds for all professions.

Our civil service employee has just settled into the job of director; she is still learning the routines of policy, planning and legislation at that level. It will take at least five years for her to become competent in the job before she can assume leadership at higher levels. But after nine months she just saw an advertisement for the job of deputy director general in another department, and off she runs in her best wardrobe to impress a potentially new employer.

She now gets the job — black and bright and a woman to boot — and without the committee questioning her depth of skill and competence for the new job, she moves on higher. She has learnt all the right kinds of phrases to impress the selection team — phrases such as “developmental state” and “fast-tracking” and “the Public Finance Management Act”. She reminds the committee of her government’s commitment to “employment equity” and, just like that, she moves into the new job.

This is tolerable if a handful of civil servants do it. But every day there are scores of youthful civil servants crossing the streets of Pretoria and the provincial capitals doing this very thing — running prematurely from one job to the other simply to optimise their personal earnings and social status.

In the short-term, the only way to end this madness is through agreement across government departments that no civil servant will be interviewed in their department without at least three solid years in his or her current post level and then only after a detailed evaluation of competence in the current job. Young people must learn that there are no short-cuts to competence and that staying focused on the job is the best way to become an expert in their field.

In the long-term, the resolution of this problem is to ensure that more and more well-trained young people make it from school into university, and from university into entry-level jobs in the public (and private) sector. In other words, the more well-trained young people there are who can fill all those vacancies in government departments, there will be fewer opportunities for job hopping among their colleagues. And the more young people remain in their positions and learn the complex skills required for that job, the more likely South Africa is to overcome the skills crisis.

The government could, of course, do something else in the short-term. It could break with this madness of hiring only (or mainly) black men by also opening up jobs to young white men (and, to a lesser extent, white women) to join the civil service with their new skills in law, auditing and computing to overcome the backlog in unfilled posts. But that is a kind of generosity that our new government has yet to discover within the broader public service.

• Jonathan Jansen is honorary professor of Education at the University of the Witwatersrand and vice chancellor designate, University of the Free State.

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