Is training South Africa’s saviour?

Is training South Africa’s saviour?

South Africa’s rate of unemployment shows no signs of abating any time soon. Could this be addressed via training? CHARLEEN CLARKE discovers that this topic attracts some heated debate…

Any discussion around unemployment was bound to be controversial. For goodness’ sake, we cannot even agree on the unemployment rate in this country. Officially, it hovers around 27 percent (some say the figure should be higher).

A recent email that went viral claimed that “unemployment has increased by 60 percent since 1994”. According to Africa Check, that’s not even remotely true; the official unemployment rate then was around 20 percent.

The same email stated that South Africa has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world and, according to Africa Check, this is true. “The International Monetary Fund (IMF), for example, is one of a number of organisations that monitors unemployment rates. In some cases, where data is unavailable, it provides estimates.

“According to the IMF’s most recent figures, South Africa has the sixth-highest unemployment rate behind Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Greece and Spain. However, many African countries are not included in IMF figures and anecdotal evidence suggests unemployment levels across the continent are high. In Zimbabwe, for example, President Robert Mugabe’s party claims unemployment is ‘hovering around 60 percent’,” the organisation warns.

So that’s irrefutably true; our unemployment rate is one of the highest in the world. What can we do about it? Do we have enough skilled people in South Africa to fill those vacancies that DO exist? Are companies paying enough attention to training? Are there enough suitably trained and qualified people (within the SHEQ industry)?

Brian Darlington, group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria, and SHEQ MANAGEMENT columnist, says he’s not convinced that training could ease this country’s unemployment woes. “I am not sure if it’s about training; I think it’s more about the availability of work,” he comments.

Darlington believes that South African companies could, however, do more when it comes to SHEQ-related training. “We are finding it difficult to fill the senior safety and health positions with suitably qualified and experienced people,” he reports.

He says that companies such as Mondi are certainly placing massive emphasis on training. “I am not sure what other companies are doing. However, at Mondi, it’s a huge issue and, as a result, we have our own Mondi Training Academy. We are placing a lot of focus on the training of management teams, as well as first-line leaders.

“I believe companies need to place stronger focus on the training of supervisors and foremen, as these are the people who are often promoted because they are good operators or artisans. However, these people do not have the necessary skills to manage their teams,” he points out.

Fulufhelo Lottering Muthevhuli, SHEQ officer at HM Group Cape Town, agrees that training is important, but he says that a lack of training is not solely to blame for the country’s unemployment statistics.

“Certainly, more practical training will give us skills to manufacture products of our own. We need to train people to use our natural resources to develop the products. We also need more SHEQ-related training. There are not enough of us. We still need more professionals to come on board and be part of ensuring compliance to the relevant acts and regulations,” he tells SHEQ MANAGEMENT.

Robin W Jones, president of the South African Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, also has some interesting comments on the topic. “Personally, I don’t believe that training will solve the unemployment problem. Unless the economy is vibrant, there is no upsurge in job creation.

“Employers cut costs and automate. Just look at the motor industry – robotics is now the in thing. You still need a worker to load panels into a jig, but then the robots weld the whole thing together – and they do it faster than people and without errors,” he points out.

Having said that, Jones is – of course – passionate about education, skills and training, but it’s clearly a subject that raises his blood pressure somewhat. “Albert Einstein said: ‘If you always do what you always did, then you will always get what you always got’. Unless something major changes, I have no hope for the ignorant masses. To me education is the key that opens the door to passages that take you to the journey of your life.

“Without the education there is no key to start the journey, but then I read of school boycotts, burning of school property and other vandalism. I see young people destroying their computers, attacking teachers … and then ill-prepared pupils insist on a free university education. In our day, if you had no money you did not go to university, no matter how brilliant you were (unless you got a bursary)!” he points out.

Riaan Venter, founder of SA Construction Safety Training, is another individual with some controversial views on the subject. Like all the other industry commentators, he believes that training is important.

“It is somewhat easier for trained people to find employment – but many companies don’t pay enough attention to training as they are trying to reduce costs. The first place where cuts are made is on training and safety-related expenses; companies believe that these are not needed,” he tells SHEQ MANAGEMENT.

Venter says that, sometimes, too much emphasis is placed on qualifications. “What makes a person qualified? Is it the fact that they have a certificate, or does experience also count? I would much rather employ a person with the required experience and then get him qualified – instead of employing a person with qualifications and then giving him the experience.

“In the safety field, there is an influx of newly qualified people, without actual experience. This is killing the market for the experienced guys, as the newly qualified people get paid less by companies, once again saving money,” Venter says.

He acknowledges that his comments are controversial. “Should I have offended anyone, I am sorry, but this is the way it is out here in the field. We have people with book knowledge, but no experience … and that’s dangerous,” he concludes.

So there you have it. Is training South Africa’s saviour? The answer appears to be a resounding no. Yes, training is, of course, vitally important, but it’s far from a panacea. Instead, we have many more challenges that need to be addressed if we want to see unemployment figures plummeting.

Reference: Africa Check, a non-partisan organisation which promotes accuracy in public debate and the media. See more at

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