UP EXPERT OPINION: ‘SA needs to narrow its skills gap’ – Deputy Director of UP’s Centre for the Future of Work

Posted on May 27, 2024

In South Africa, the ongoing challenge of youth unemployment has reached critical levels, exacerbated by a significant skills gap in the workforce. As the world undergoes rapid technological and economic transformations, the need for a skilled and adaptable workforce has never been more urgent. The solution lies in a robust focus on narrowing the skills gap, which can pave the way for sustainable economic growth and social equity.

The skills gap in South Africa is complex and multifaceted, driven by various factors including technological advancements, the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic economic issues. While technical skills are often present, there is a notable deficit in foundational, cognitive and soft skills, which are necessary for effective performance in the modern workplace. This deficiency not only hampers individual productivity, but also stifles innovation and economic growth at national level.

The influence of technology on the work environment is another considerable factor. Technological progress has transformed the nature of work globally, creating new job opportunities while rendering some traditional roles obsolete. The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated the adoption of digital technologies, emphasising the need for digital literacy, cybersecurity and remote collaboration skills. The shift to remote work and digital platforms has highlighted the inadequacies in the current education and training systems, which were not designed to cope with such rapid changes. This has resulted in a widened skills gap, particularly affecting low-skilled workers and those in the informal sector. In South Africa, industries such as renewable energy and digital technology are expanding, yet they face a critical shortage of skilled workers. For instance, the green hydrogen economy is poised to become a significant player, requiring thousands of engineers, technicians and artisans. However, the lack of specialised training and education in these areas poses a major hurdle.

As we stand on the brink of a new era, it is imperative to recognise and adapt to the profound changes shaping the world of work. According to the Institute of the Future, a US-based think tank, 85% of jobs that today’s students will hold by 2030 have not yet been created. This highlights the need for a workforce that is equipped with the skills to thrive in an increasingly dynamic environment. In South Africa, this reality is evidenced by a recent slight improvement in the graduate unemployment rate, which dropped from 10.6% in the first quarter of 2023 to 9.6% in the second quarter.

Addressing the skills gap requires a comprehensive and strategic approach that involves multiple stakeholders, including the government, educational institutions, the private sector and civil society. There are several key recommendations for addressing this gap.

Educational institutions must adapt their curricula to include not only technical skills but also soft skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving and emotional intelligence. Collaborative efforts between industries and educational bodies are essential to ensuring that training programmes align with market needs. Collaboration between the public and private sectors can drive innovation in skills development. Private companies can play a significant role in designing and delivering training programmes that are directly relevant to their needs, ensuring that graduates are job-ready. Promoting a culture of continuous learning and professional development is essential. Incentives for employers to invest in upskilling their workforce can help bridge the skills gap within organisations. Online learning platforms and flexible training modules can make upskilling more accessible.

Initiatives of this nature ensure that skills development is more inclusive and equitable. Programmes must address historical inequalities and provide targeted support to marginalised groups, thereby fostering a more inclusive workforce. In addition, strengthening technical vocational education and training (TVET) programmes to provide relevant and high-quality instruction is crucial. These programmes should be designed to meet the demands of modern industries, incorporating up-to-date technological training and practical experience.

The future of work in South Africa hinges on the ability to adapt to a rapidly changing economic landscape. By prioritising skills development and addressing the skills gap, the country can unlock the potential of its youth, drive innovation and ensure sustainable economic growth. It is imperative that all stakeholders work together to create a resilient and adaptable workforce.

Bridging the skills gap is not just about meeting the immediate demands of the job market – it is about building a foundation for long-term prosperity and equity. By investing in education, training and continuous learning, South Africa can pave the way for a brighter future for its youth and the country as a whole. The choices made today will shape our trajectory in the global economy, and through proactive collaboration and forward-thinking strategies, we can navigate the challenges and seize the opportunities of the future.

By Dr Olebogeng Selebi, Deputy Director: Centre for the Future of Work at the University of Pretoria

- Author Dr Olebogeng Selebi

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