The Big Read: Pandor on jobs, raising entrepreneurs and having your work cut out for you

When Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandor asked her son, as he was about to graduate, where he planned to work, he replied, "Me? Work for somebody? I’m starting my own business."

"And I thought, 'Oh dear, this chap is going to be at home forever…Oh, no…'" Pandor says, laughing.

Now, she says, her son runs a successful farming business, where he grows and sells vegetables. Her daughter is a techpreneur and CEO of a domestic service app.

"You know, I talk about it [being an entrepreneur], but when it happened in my own home, I was so nervous.

"I think, as South Africans [when it comes to entrepreneurship], we tend to think you can’t, but I know now that it’s doable, so I’ve learned a good lesson."

The truth is, Pandor is more than convinced that it’s "doable" – so much so, that she plans to introduce and encourage entrepreneurship as a key component of higher learning within the vocational college sector as a way to address the country’s crippling job crisis. 

But, if anything, it’s Pandor who has her work cut out for her. 

A much-needed turnaround

Faced with under-funding, under-qualified lecturers and a ten-year certification backlog, among other things, in terms of Technical and Vocational Education and Training colleges, it’s not the kind of thing anyone can solve overnight. Hot on the heels of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Jobs Summit where he highlighted the need for businesses to partner with technical colleges, she is all too aware of what it means to turn the much-needed sector around.

Little more than a week ago, she visited an examination centre and said what she saw there left her "really worried".

"I saw paper. Lots and lots of files – and it really worried me because once you have a paper-based system, the potential for human error is huge, and when you’re dealing with certification or results, you can’t really have too much of that human error element because it interferes with your ability to be accurate, so I think there is a lot of work to do.

"I think we have to have a digitised system, so I have said to the director general that I want us to talk to our colleagues at Stats SA to look at whether they can assist as they did with Home Affairs in terms of digitising thousands of records," she says.

But, despite this, Pandor says they are slowly starting to make "inroads".

"Some of the (backlog) is being ironed out, but the nature of the sector does make it difficult to manage this aspect in terms of the examination system and certification, because it’s a sector that operates on different course terms – you may have an annual programme, or a three-year-programme, so ensuring there is alignment in data capturing has been really difficult.

"[W]e are now working on developing our own system that will be dedicated to the TVET college sector, and which I think will then help."

But where are we in terms of skills, and has there been any real impact? For Pandor, it is mostly a work in progress. 

"We had set a target of producing 30 000 skilled artisans annually by 2030, and I reported in my budget speech that we are at 22 000-plus, so it looks like the 30 000 might be possible, but there is still a lot of work to be done because this sector has been underfunded.

"I still think it is regarded as a sort of second cousin to the universities sector, so we need to do much better; we have to improve the character of infrastructure, the programmes have to be 21st century, the lecturers must be fully in tune with the economy and the skills of the country…

"I want to make them a very attractive option for young people and I want even the brightest young people to say, 'That’s where I want to go.'" 

But based on all these challenges, to what extent can business trust the process?

Meeting international standards

"In my view, South Africa is going to succeed at addressing its problems only in so far as we manage to establish partnerships across different stakeholder groups. The problems of SA don’t belong to Ramaphosa or his political party. They are South African problems, so we must constantly search for ways of collaborating," she says, adding that she plans to kick-start a pilot project in 2019 that will see 26 colleges – 840 students – paired with businesses.

She says the department plans to pilot a programme which will offer students a paid apprenticeship upon entry.

"Young people should know that they'll get placement and industry must influence the curriculum," she says.

Pandor says 13 sectors have been targeted. 

These are mechanical fitter, boilermaker, electrician, millwright, bricklayer, plumber, automotive mechanics, diesel mechanic, carpenter and joiner, welder, rigger, fitter and turner, and pipe fitter – all of which have been identified as key trades that meet the demand for the country's skills.

"With each of these trades, we have worked with an industry association and employers to define the curriculum, to help us design the workshop and to have their equipment in the workshops – so if we have Volvo for example, we will have a Volvo engine in one of the workshops," she says.

For now, the aim is to measure the success of the pilot before expanding it further.

"Rather than initiating a large range, we thought let’s stick to the 13 that are occupations in high demand and then, should we succeed, it would be a three-year programme. We would then double or whatever the expansion would be, but each of the young people will know (at the beginning) that when they complete the college teaching part, they will go to a specific business and they will receive stipends. That’s the direction I want to go."

Pandor says much of what is being implemented in South Africa is considered international best practice, particularly in terms of Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Poland, where vocational training is central to the learning structure.

"These are some of the countries that have some of the best vocational and training systems in the world, and we’re working with them - both on lecturer development as well as on what form or link we should have with industry, and how to develop a system where young people come in (for training) for a period, go out (to industry) for a period, come back in…so that you are always associating practice with theory. That is what works best, and then the employer is able to assess you and become interested in the skills (you have to offer)."

Success on the ground

But with some 700 000 entrants in the sector, Pandor is faced with a big challenge in terms of getting enough business partnerships for each of the students, should the pilot prove a success.

"It’s not been a tradition in SA, so it’s a tradition we need to develop. We’re hoping the Setas (Skills Education and Training Authorities) can be of assistance – but I think it’s a practice we will develop over time, and work on it.

"We must improve our programme offerings to be far more relevant, so I’m keen to encourage research, because I want to understand: We keep saying we don’t have enough skills. And then I ask myself: What jobs? Where are these jobs? What skills do they require? Why are we training in skills that don’t fit the economy…?

"So I’m hoping to put a committee together that will start to give me answers. What do we offer? How relevant is it? And what is industry looking for?"

Pandor says that if funding is available, she is hoping to have the committee set up within three months – but in the meantime, she is not prepared to turn a blind eye to the impact of business, saying that while she has had some positive discussions, she wants businesses to "come back and give me 500 apprenticeships – then we’re having a real discussion". 

So what of the Jobs Summit? Was it little more than a talk shop?

"There’s nothing wrong with talking, but that shouldn’t be the only thing. We must become very good at implementation and follow through. I believe that beyond the plan, the issue of impact is important. Nothing should be left to chance. We should be following up, making sure that what we support and provide funding for is working in the way we intended it to work."

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