Growing South Africa’s skills quotient

Training and education strategies to improve our economic performance


South Africa’s performance in several key economic areas – and a few others that haven’t enjoyed due priority – has been moderate in the past few years, when most commentators have been expecting explosive growth.

Focus area flops
For a long time, one of SA’s most hyped exports, our business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, has under-performed when compared to India and Brazil. Countries that do not have our combination of language and time zone advantages, including Mexico, Ukraine and Turkey, are at this very moment eating our lunch.

Another area on which we’ve been pinning our hopes, our clichéd status of “gateway into Africa”, has also increasingly left the business lexicon. Countries like Ghana, Kenya, Egypt, Nigeria, Angola and Mozambique have all become darlings of foreign investment – partly because some have rich natural resources, and partly because they’re managing important industry sectors, if not entire economies, with skill.

As a result, the world’s love affair with us is in danger of cooling somewhat, but the good news is we can easily do better. One way to make a certain difference is to produce the right skills in the right focus areas.

How to do scarce skills better

  • Focus on ICT infrastructure – Road and rail infrastructure is widely acknowledged to be critical for economic development. But other infrastructural areas are enjoying less prominence. If we invest enough in data centre and communications backbones, research grids and the skills to operate them, then digital, service-based and knowledge industries will flourish.
  • Focus on fringe skills – India is a great example of a country that has found, stuck with, and fully developed a particular business process outsourcing niche, thus creating not only wealth through exports, but also jobs. One of South Africa’s more successful BPO niche areas, software development, can be further strengthened by focusing on fringe skills such as software testing. Post-production in the film industry is another example of a successful activity that could do with more skills on either side of the film-making continuum.
  • Focus on mobile – As Africans we have a greater reliance than most on mobile, and an opportunity to grow development skills that can drive advances in digital content on platforms ranging from feature phones to smartphones and tablets.
  • Less learning for the sake of it – Too much of university education exists in a vacuum. There must be greater collaboration between institutions of learning and business; both sides must actively seek it out with recruitment and post-graduate or research programmes as well as innovative initiatives that suit their unique objectives.
  • Less corporate focus – Many graduate studies focus on skills that fare well in a corporate environment but have little relevance in an entrepreneurial environment – where much of the innovation is likely to come from. A focus on business and communication as well as mobile, social and digital content skills, to name a few, wouldn’t go amiss anywhere.
  • Fewer generalists, please – Where niche skills are needed, especially by start-ups and smaller companies, the over-supply of vanilla-flavoured skills drives up the cost of the right skills, putting them out of reach of the one area where innovation is likeliest to come from.

It’s a competition
Ultimately, these and similarly strategic skills programmes within university admissions, workplace recruitment and government policy-making will raise the country’s competitiveness. It’s a global arena, and to matter, we need to play in it.


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Growing South Africa’s skills quotient