Dear friends and fellow South Africans,
When Minister Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training, announced on Monday that 2013 would be the Year of the Artisan, I thought back to my time as Minister of Home Affairs and our efforts then to determine which skills South Africa needed most.
Under my leadership, we created a provision in the Immigration Act that requires the Minister of Home Affairs to consult with the Departments of Labour and Trade and Industry, and to publish, at least annually, a national scarce and critical skills list. The purpose for Home Affairs was to determine which foreign professionals we should allow into South Africa on an expedited basis, to ensure that our skills' base grows in harmony with the needs of our economy.
But it also created a valuable tool for a variety of other departments, such as the Department of Education, to determine where the focus should be placed in producing skills through tertiary institutions, to ensure that our own citizens could be equipped to fill existing gaps in the labour market.
In so doing, the economy would be strengthened, while employment levels would increase.
It is thus a pity that, despite the legislative requirement, the Department of Home Affairs has failed to publish the National Scarce and Critical Skills List since 2009. We are thus four years behind in knowing what our current labour market needs in terms of skills. I am sure that the Minister of Home Affairs, having previously been the Minister of Education, appreciates the nexus between identifying needed skills and producing the right skills through our education system.
When Minister Nzimande announced two weeks ago that South Africa needs to focus on skills that cannot be acquired at universities, but only at FETs (Further Education and Training institutions), I couldn't help but wonder how this skills need had been identified. The Minister insisted we should focus on producing plumbers, welders, boilermakers and electricians, and, to that end, billions of Rands will be poured into FETs in 2013.
According to the last National Scarce and Critical Skills List, of 2009, South Africa needed 500 boilermakers, 1500 welders, 150 electricians and no plumbers. Compared to our need for Maths and Science teachers (2000), biomedical engineers and technicians (5000) and agricultural science technicians (5000), it appears that artisans were not the most needed skills in 2009.
When JIPSA, the Joint Initiative on Priority Skills Acquisition, was created in the Presidency in 2006, I advised that the findings of JIPSA should feed into the National Scarce and Critical Skills List. With the erratic publication of the List, it is not clear whether that happened.
Nevertheless, according to the final report of JIPSA, South Africa needed to produce 50 000 artisans between 2007 and 2010 to meet the projected market demand. That was an increase of 30 000; and the way JIPSA recommended we do it was through "an extraordinary commitment from both public- and private-sector players", giving urgent attention to producing artisans through FET colleges.
What happened to that initiative? Was it successful? Because if we managed to meet the market demand for artisans through that "extraordinary commitment", is there space in our labour market for more? The consequences of producing too many artisans are diverse, highlighting the importance of knowing with certainty how many we actually need.
The Minister's announcement that this is the Year of the Artisan will no doubt encourage young South Africans to pursue a two year diploma at an FET in 2013, because a job seems guaranteed at the end of it. With Government pouring billions into bursaries at FETs, this option is even more attractive. But if the market is saturated, those thousands of young people are going to graduate in 2015 and find that there are no jobs, and that they have just spent two years acquiring a skill that is not needed.
No caring Government would risk exposing young people to that terrible possibility. So we have to believe that the Department of Higher Education is working with reliable information on the need for artisans.
The Department has indeed compiled its own Skills Demand List for 2012 - 2013. Although there is no current National Scarce and Critical Skills List to measure it against, there are some quite obvious problems. The Department, for instance, feels South Africa needs no Grades 10 to 12 Maths teachers, or even Maths Literacy teachers. And despite the fact that in rural areas there is only one doctor per 7 679 people, the Department feels we need only 1 072 doctors to fill the gap.
When it comes to artisans, the Department's List advises that South Africa needs 2 405 "welders and flame cutters", 322 plumbers and 3 030 electricians of every description. Boilermakers don't feature on the list.
Even if accurate, these figures do not convincingly suggest that this should be the Year of the Artisan. By comparison, the Department feels we need 111 858 managers across all economic and industrial sectors, 18 538 "technicians and associate professionals" and 65 823 professionals.
Thus when the Minister insists that the skills South Africa needs come from FETs and not universities, one is left wondering whether the motivation is simply to shift the focus away from university education, towards FETs. In fact, the Minister did say, "Every South African, whether you have passed or failed, we must create an opportunity for you to acquire a skill, even if you got 20 percent."
But shouldn't you be able to use that skill? Shouldn't it be the kind of skill that opens the door to a job?
This feels like the ANC's way of shifting the focus.
It's concerning then that our FETs are not in good shape. The pass rate is poor and academics are calling for the National Certificate Vocational Programme (NCV) to be scrapped completely. Minister Nzimande admitted on Monday that students use the NSFAS (the National Students' Financial Aid Scheme) as a social grant, only appearing at FETs on the day that allowances are being paid. Clearly the FET system needs more than a financial boost. It needs strengthening on many fronts. The usual ANC solution of throwing more money at the problem will not solve the problem.
It is hard to believe that FETs are ready and equipped to produce all these artisans the Minister is calling for. Nevertheless, the Department's Skills Demand List would have us believe that FETs are not short of even a single Mechanical Technology teacher. So, presumably, they are ready for the Year of the Artisan.
I am worried that this is in fact the Year of the Subterfuge. The ANC is scrambling to hold back a rising tide of youth dissatisfaction, as it keeps failing to create jobs while dragging its heels on the Youth Wage Subsidy.
With 51% of our country's youth unemployed, the ruling party is going to have an uphill battle convincing a predominantly young electorate to vote ANC in 2014.
Enter the Year of the Artisan. Young people are being convinced that if they study for the next two years, they are assured of a job, and the ANC-led Government will make sure they can study. As the Minister put it, "...students from poor backgrounds. will get funding... All of them. That is guaranteed."
Thus young people can either be assured of a 'social grant' bursary for the next two years, or the opportunity to study for a skill that Government insists will deliver a job. Either way, this initiative is a convenient way to stave off youth dissatisfaction until the election of 2014 has passed.
I urge you, friends, to keep your eyes open, because the looming elections will be the reason behind many more initiatives taken by Government in the Year of the ANC Subterfuge.
Yours in the service of our nation,
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP