[Column] Vukani Mngxati: High time for a greater national effort in skills development
In an important address on resolving South Africa’s extended and deepening energy crisis, President Ramaphosa alluded to the importance of high-level skills in solving the problem as well as society’s need for stability and continuity.
He made a critical point about finding and recruiting power station managers who had previously worked for the utility. Their experience and institutional memory will be invaluable in helping solve what until now has been an intractable problem. His words on increased private sector involvement in mitigating the endless rotation of loadshedding are also welcome.
I’m no expert on power generation and those tasked with keeping the country’s lights on have nothing but my respect. However, the President’s remarks on talent and proficiency; steady hands at the wheel; and collaboration go far wider than electricity generation and should be driving a debate across both the public and private sector.
Let’s deal with the skills issue first and in an area, I am most familiar with. Companies to remain competitive need to have a technology-first mindset and to operate efficiently and at a cutting edge, need the right people doing the job. The sector right now is struggling to fill thousands of ICT vacancies. The skills required range from cyber security practitioners, data design and analytics to artificial intelligence and machine learning. Those who have these skills have become marketable commodities not only in South Africa but around the world.
I know of one young coder who’s so good at his job and in an effort to retain him has been given two twenty-five percent salary increases in the space of eighteen months. If that doesn’t illustrate the problem, then nothing will. This is an issue much like power generation that requires greater cross-sectoral private and public collaboration.
It’s all very well for companies to play a small part in training and mentoring but the overall throughput is simply not enough. A single cohort of successful trainees from one organisation will not solve the bigger problem.
My call to action is for a vast pooling of skills and effort to radically accelerate the volume of trainees. Imagine if we were able to effectively train ten thousand ICT experts a year. Not only would we be able to bridge the current chasm we’re facing but we could also become a global insource hub or even a net exporter of tech skills. I know we have latent aptitude among our young South Africans, we just need a better harnessing strategy.
The President’s second point about stability is critical as it enables an economy to access all that is needed for accomplishment including resources, financial security, decent housing, a supply of food, and jobs that provide a living wage. Stability however requires a living, breathing organic compact between all of society’s stakeholders to ensure that it works.
My plea to colleagues in business is to continue to offer solutions and advice and not be discouraged when it does not land the first time. Our constant loadstar needs to be the upward trajectory of our economy. The World Bank says economic growth and political stability are deeply interconnected. Uncertainty it says associated with an unstable political environment that may reduce investment and the pace of economic development while poor economic performance may lead to government collapse and political unrest. South African leaders across all spheres must keep an eye on both those competing forces all the time.