Changing the way our colleges work is key to reducing unemployment

Business should inform curricula to prepare South Africa for the fourth industrial revolution, writes Business Unity SA CEO Tanya Cohen

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Photo of students outside college
Students stand outside Buffalo City TVET College St Marks campus during protests in 2017. Archive photo: Siphokazi Vuso

In any other society, a youth unemployment rate of upwards of 30% would give policymakers and administrators sleepless nights. But the slow pace of reform in higher education and the seeming absence of a broad-based, coordinated and comprehensive policy in South Africa suggests otherwise.

The world is fast-changing and the age of Artificial Intelligence is here. There is no doubt that the era of digital disruption and its associated opportunities are the new normal. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that South Africa does not miss the wave.

As the country grapples with intergenerational poverty and the structural remnants of apartheid — which have created a vicious cycle of inequality — it must also think about how it will embrace the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) and ensure it is not left behind.

Business is at the coalface of the opportunities and challenges of the 4IR. This is especially true in sectors such as mining and agriculture, where sophisticated tech developments have seen machinery increasingly replace labour.

But it takes humans to come up with these technologies, generate the ideas and devise and improve the standards. This means our approach to employment and its associated skills must change to one that prepares for what is to come.

South Africa’s population is one of the youngest in the world. Youth is a demographic associated with energy, thought and new ways of doing things. However, year in year out, Statistics South Africa data tells us that something is wrong with how we are enabling our youth.

Business Unity South Africa has been advocating for a demand-led skills development approach, which we believe would do a lot to reduce youth unemployment.

Currently, the supply side floods the market with graduates whose degrees and trade qualifications do not match employer demand. What we need is a skills framework that responds adeptly to the changing needs of the economy.

For example, as soon as a new high cholesterol medicine is developed, we need to be able to adjust skills training to produce and distribute the product, rather than keep on relying on skills to produce a medicine that is no longer in distribution. This example can be extended to most innovation and business development.

TVET colleges can be a pathway to employment

Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges can equip youth with skills that do match employer demand, but it would require big changes.

Lecturers should be well versed in cutting-edge and current developments in the world of work. They need to be interacting with business and business should be informing the content of TVET curricula.

At present, however, while there are some examples of best practice, for the main the TVET curriculum is outdated, with lectures using textbooks that are redundant. This is not the type of education that will enable youth to participate meaningfully in the economy.

However, the demand-led approach where business actively partners with the state in addressing education and skills constraints can change this. It could lead to greater absorption of TVET graduates into the South African workforce.

The demand-led approach envisages TVETs partnering with business to devise training, skills and pathways to occupations informed by current work trends and skill requirements. This means students are taught relevant and up-to-date trades.

A best-case scenario is to include analytical reasoning, creativity and critical thinking into the training framework because these are the core skills required to drive the benefits of 4IR.

TVET colleges should not only be a viable alternative to universities but also an attractive option as a pathway to employment.

Revamping the TVET system to align it with the skills demand driven by developments in the economy would go a long way to reducing youth unemployment. It could also improve our competitiveness as a country.

If there is an oversupply of unwanted skills in the market then the unemployment statistics are going to reflect that. However, a smart and agile approach to TVETs, informed by demand, would ameliorate this.

TVETs are the low-hanging fruit that we could start picking to make inroads on the country’s youth unemployment crisis.

Tanya Cohen is CEO of Business Unity South Africa. This article is part of a series.

Views expressed are not GroundUp’s.

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