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Reskilling SA’s manufacturing artisan base

The proficiencies required to perform blue collar work in factories are becoming increasingly more sophisticated. Therefore, the vast majority of existing artisans employed by the industry need to be upskilled. The most enterprising employees could also be developed further to serve as technicians and engineers.

Many entry level and general blue-collar jobs now require basic education skills, including numeracy, at least at a National Qualifications Framework Level 4. Over-and-above, individuals who work as artisans need to hold a National Technical Certificate (NTC) from a Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) college.

This is as local manufacturers continue to mechanise and automate repetitive and mundane work. In some instances, these functions are being performed by workers with the bare minimum in terms of basic education skills. It is estimated that just under 50% of all artisans working the manufacturing industry are unqualified. Only about 32% hold a National Senior Certificate and only 6,4% a tertiary qualification.

Performing similar jobs as technicians but with a more practical focus, artisans constitute the backbone of the manufacturing industry. Therefore, they consist of more than 70% of the total workforce.

However, the pool from which new artisanal skills can be sourced is extremely small. South Africa’s school system is struggling to produce sufficient candidates who have passed matric with technical subjects to meet demand. This is despite a notable improvement in the matric maths and science pass rate in the country since 2020.

School leavers who matriculated with maths as a subject already possess the basis upon which both “hard” or technical skills can be developed. These are the proficiencies that employees need to do the job of artisans.

Certainly, basic numeracy skills are also the basis of “Soft” skills, which are becoming increasingly important in this digital era. While new technologies can perform many traditional factory jobs that require “hard” or technical skills, machine do not possess “soft” skills. These include collaboration and teamwork; creativity; interpersonal communication; adaptability and flexibility; and cultural intelligence and diversity. This is in addition to important critical and logical thinking abilities, which are also firmly grounded in numeracy and literacy.

Marco Maree, Business Development Manager of Triple E Training, says that a dearth of these skills in the manufacturing industry has hindered its ability to efficiently transition into a new industrial era.

“South Africa is being left behind the technology revolution. We are still stuck in the second and third industrial ages. Only about 6,4% of the total South African manufacturing workforce is currently qualified. The vast majority of artisans do not hold a NSC or an equivalent qualification. Without foundational skills at least at a NQF Level 1, which is equivalent to Grade 9, these employees will struggle to adapt to new advanced technologies and processes,” Maree says.

Thus, enterprising manufacturers are working with Triple E Training to upskill their artisans. This is through the provision of both adult literacy and numeracy training. These employees first attain a General Education and Training Certificate by completing an adult education and training (AET) programme. Thereafter, they complete foundational learning competence (FLC) training which is compulsory for all new Quality Council for Trades & Occupations courses at NQF Level 2 to 4. Whereas AET teaches employees how to read, write and do basic mathematics, FLC provides instruction in the use of literacy and numeracy skills to continue learning.

Previously, poor English literacy and numeracy skills were a hurdle in the way of artisans working in the industry to obtain a recognised qualification. Therefore, despite being very proficient workers, career and individual growth were stifled.

Employees who have completed the training are fluent in the language of learning and instruction and have the basic numeracy skills to understand technical concepts that are presented in occupational training. In this way, they have been primed to succeed in further learning to formalise the “hard” skills that they have acquired through work experience. These are complemented by essential workplace literacy skills, which enable modern factory workers to communicate efficiently; present; and negotiate. These proficiencies are among the other “soft” skills that are highly sought after by employers in most industries.

Maree notes that although they do not hold a qualification, many older artisans working in the industry have gained immense experience over the years. Therefore, he believes that more effort needs to be made by the industry to certify these employees via a Recognition of Prior Learning Programme.

This will also provide scope for career and individual growth and development, which is a way of retaining these skills. Retention of these skills is of utmost importance to the sustainability of the industry considering the dire shortage of these professionals in the country. At present, 29% of all artisans employed in the industry are nearing retirement age, which will aggravate the skills crisis and intensify competition for talent.

The most enterprising artisans could be further developed to bolster a worrying decline in number of technicians in the industry in ages below 55 to 64. Although qualified, many

technicians working in the industry do not hold a National Diploma from a University of Technology. This is a baseline qualification to work as a technician in the industry. Therefore, just more than 30% of technicians who work in the industry are adequately qualified to do so.

During the training of artisans, Triple E Training also helps manufacturers to identify potential future industrial engineers, manufacturing managers, plant engineers and production supervisors. This is in addition to the other knowledge workers who ensure the seamless operation of factories. These industrious learners are encouraged to complete adult matric instead of pursuing National Certificate: Vocational training courses after passing the GETC-AET Level 4 Examination. In this way, they can work towards obtaining exemption to study relevant engineering disciplines at a university.

“Poor onboarding and inadequate training have played a large role in the many skills-related challenges with which local manufacturers grapple today. These have been compounded by the rapid onset of new technologies that significantly improve productivity, efficiency, accuracy and safety of production lines. The skills required to fully harness them is key to South Africa’s reindustrialisation,” Maree concludes.