OPINION | Economic conditions are an opportunity to empower SA's youth in specialised skills

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Technician at Ford South Africa (QuickPic)
Technician at Ford South Africa (QuickPic)

• Unemployment in South Africa is rife, but it's an opportunity to address skills shortages.

• Specialised skills must be made appetising to the country's youth.

• Skills development should enjoy top priority when business stability returns.

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"Our future - make it work. South Africa belongs to its entire people and the future of our country is our collective future. Making it work is our collective responsibility. All South Africans seek a better future for themselves and their children."
Dr BE Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation

South Africa's high level of unemployment is nothing new, but the cataclysmic effect Covid-19 has had on the local industry has made skills development interventions even more imperative. Skills shortages are intensifying an already dire situation, and the mismatch between businesses' evolving demands and the skills furnished by education systems, and/or insufficient numbers of people trained in the high-demand skills, are now clearly evident.

As the world tries to understand what skills and innovations would be required to successfully drive the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), South Africa must make specialised technical skills in fields such as electronics, coding, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing more appetising to youths. A rapid move towards a digital-first economy means that the majority of today's students will one day work in a job that doesn't yet exist, so it's imperative that today's education and training offer a head start for tomorrow.

ford,technician
Technician working on a car's software (QuickPic)

Reducing expenditure

It's natural for companies to reduce expenditure in a severely depressed economy, and in so doing, employee training is often among the first to receive a reduced allocation. While this is an understandable approach in the current environment, skills development should be at the top of the list for reintroduction as soon as business stability returns.

Some pertinent reasons for continuing to invest in skills development are:

• Well trained and skilled employees are critical for the long-term success of a business;

• Employees tend to be more committed and inclined to stay with the business once the competition starts recruiting again; and

• Employees who believe that their personal development is valued results in higher employee morale, loyalty and increased productivity.

READ: How Ford is using simulators to dial in noise vibration harshness levels in vehicles

Although the job market might be depressed for the moment, staff retention should be front of mind for all companies. Cyclical business trends mean opportunities are around the corner, and the loss of specialised employees could completely cripple an already stunted business as the economy improves, new opportunities open up and recruitment from competitors erodes the talent pool.

Companies that continue with training in the current environment should, however, strive to provide training that is closely aligned to the specific skills and competencies that are most critical to achieving its business goals. Training programmes should continually be evaluated, just as the company continually evaluates every other sector of the organisation's operational functions, for ways to improve efficiencies, reduce costs and operate profitably. This translates into the right training, at the right time, to the right people. 

Gary McCraw is the National Automobile Dealers' Association (NADA) director.

Gary McCraw,nada
Gary McCraw (NADA)
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