Addressing skills on track

Addressing skills on track

The South African rail industry faces a shortage of skills. We look at how this can be solved

The rail sector has a need for skills development. Maphefo Anno-Frempong, CEO of Transport at the Transport Education Training Authority (TETA), believes there are several possible solutions.

The rail industry is an interesting environment, comprising only a few companies that are headed by large players such as the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) and Transnet. The sector is currently suffering from a dire lack of funding. While the rail levies currently bring in roughly R200 million, this is not nearly sufficient to cover the needs of the industry.

“If a skills development organisation approached the TETA with a training proposal requiring funding of R100 million, it would unfortunately have to be rejected due to a clear lack of funds,” says Anno-Frempong.

“The skills gap has arisen because of a lack of funding, and a damaging perception in South Africa that education and skills training are ‘soft’ expenses, which can be cut in order to save costs. The TETA cannot close the skills gap on its own, and requires all role players in the industry to help,” she adds.

“Companies in the rail industry are only paying one percent of turnover to the Skills Development Levy (SDL), whereas other sectors, such as aerospace, road passenger transport and road freight, pay anywhere from ten to 30 percent.”

“Over the years, the TETA has supported many skills-development programmes, and has built up an extensive list of beneficiaries that it has supported. These include skills programmes, internships, workplace experience programmes, bursaries for adult education as well as training and bridging courses.

“To decide which programmes receive priority, a process is followed to ensure those sectors most in need receive funding. The skills-development programmes that apply to the rail industry are prioritised,” she explains.

There are several challenges facing the industry as it is constantly undergoing changes and conducts its business in a dynamic environment. Local organisations are facing competition and are cutting costs – a common trend among all sectors. In other parts of the world, however, training is held in the highest regard and is never the target of budget cuts.

“There is a distinct need for skilled labour, but, at the same time, expenditure on the training of these employees is being cut to save costs. This is an unsustainable situation, as the need for the skills outstrips the support being provided to the training programmes that supply these skills.

“Companies often train in house and use employees as trainers to save costs, or get international trainers, which are very expensive. The fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are vital, but those graduates are very quickly snatched up by other industries,” Anno-Frempong says.

This is where the assistance of Skills Education Training Authorities (Setas) is required to help students improve skills and get involved in the sector.

“There is a skills mismatch in the transport sector between the skills required and the skills available. In terms of tertiary education, there is a concerning scarcity of rail-specific degrees. In general there are far fewer general transport-related degrees than other degrees in the STEM fields,” notes Anno-Frempong.

In addition, graduates are often not work ready, despite having academic qualifications. Many companies volunteer to give practical training to graduates, but are faced with unrealistic expectations about prospective salaries.

Another issue is that employers often look within their organisations for new recruits, making it difficult for new entrants to get a job in the industry.

“The TETA cannot solve the problem on its own, neither can the Setas, but, working together with employers, private colleges, technikons and universities, a solution can be reached,” says Anno-Frempong.

Although there is no clear-cut remedy for the problem, the TETA suggests that the Setas work with other education institutions to create relevant qualifications, that a pathway from school to university to employment is created, and that those providing education and skills programmes and businesses work together to avoid unnecessary duplication.

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