By Kau Makgosa Project Facilitator at Economic Development Solutions
In the second quarter of 2021, South Africa’s unemployment rate was at 34.4%, a 6.8% increase from the first quarter of 2019, pushing unemployment beyond crisis level. The government has acknowledged that current strategies need to be drastically scaled to address the extent of the problem in addition to seeking alternative approaches to building an engaged, economically active workforce. In order to combat the high unemployment rate, it will be necessary to re-introduce blue collar skills and training development. This can help the youth to acquire skills that will make them useful to employers while helping South Africa to recover economically.
South Africa needs more skilled blue-collar workers like farmers, artisans and tradespeople. For example, currently, in the mining sector and with the construction of renewable energy plants, our country has to outsource these specialised manual skills, as local specialists are few and far between. Skills and training development of blue-collar workers to meet such needs would be an effective way to address the high unemployment rate without job creation. Such jobs don’t need to be created – they already exist – we just need to ensure that we have the skills available locally.
Shifting the perception of blue-collar careers
Encouraging technical training or entrepreneurship from an early age in school curricula can make a significant difference in unemployment numbers. Not everyone has what it takes to be a doctor, lawyer, accountant, or rocket scientist, and those are not the only career prospects that are high-paying or lead to success. Instead, there are many more opportunities for individuals to explore their own potential through gainful employment in skilled fields such as construction, renewable energy, manufacturing and mining, to name a few. The blue-collar career path is going to require a PR makeover – when parents tell their children that they can be anything when they grow up, this needs to include discussing blue-collar options. This is necessary to reduce unemployment figures, particularly youth unemployment which sits at 74.8% of South Africans between 15 and 24 years of age.
To facilitate this, artisan and technical skills training will need to be more readily available and accessible, particularly in rural areas. More accredited artisan training colleges will be needed, in addition to a proper structure that monitors these facilities with oversight from the Quality Council For Trade & Occupations to prevent illegal colleges from popping up. Along with Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges providing the opportunity to gain skills qualifications, there needs to be a push for companies to provide learnerships, internships and apprenticeships to deliver on-the-job skills training, along with a realistic stipend for the duration of such programs that allows the individual to cover basic living and transport costs. A push towards reforming the current structure of these programs as well. Companies are currently not obliged to provide employment for participants, hence the current challenge of young people moving from one program to another (for ages) and companies absorbing youth only to replace them with new participants at the end of the program. Training and keeping the youth in employment in these companies will be the effective way of impacting youth unemployment.
Start where we can, with what we have
To address unemployment, it will be necessary to make the most of current opportunities, as limited as they may be. For example, when renewable energy projects currently under bid move into construction, regulations require that local people must be appointed to work on these projects. This means appointing local service providers, local supplier development and skills training programs. In this space alone, there are 12 projects under bid at risk mitigation stage which means there’s massive potential within this industry and all its supporting industries to form part of the supply chain into these projects. Despite delays on these projects, it is necessary to keep pushing because the minute those projects start, foreign investment will be encouraged which in turn will encourage other industries to also start investing within the supply chain of those projects. And that’s just in one industry.
Skills must match demand
On an individual level, for young people considering their futures, it’s important to bear in mind the skills that they pursue need to be relevant to the work opportunities available and that money rarely comes without putting in the work to gain the experience first. On a corporate level, businesses need to think beyond BEE scorecards and box-ticking when it comes to learnerships and internships, and actually provide young job seekers with on-the-job training that equips them for the real working world and prepares them for permanent employment. There are so many opportunities beyond white collar careers, where it is just as possible to achieve great things and make a comfortable living.