To quote Nelson Mandela: “Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mine worker can become head of mines, that the child of a farm worker can become president of a great nation.”
Nelson Mandela’s passionate belief in the value of education is more pertinent than ever in the ‘rainbow nation.’ As South Africa takes its place amongst the BRICS group of emerging economies and seeks a leadership role in sub-Saharan Africa’s economic development, a well-educated population is essential to drive its continued growth.
Sadly, a generation after the end of apartheid, South Africa’s education system is not producing enough individuals with the capabilities necessary to become members of a competitive workforce.
According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013, South Africa ranks a respectable 52nd of 144 countries, the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. However, imbedded in these rankings is South Africa’s poorly performing primary education system, which ranks a dismal 132nd. Although South Africa is home to some world-class universities, its higher education and training score ranks significantly below its competitiveness ranking, at 84th. This poor performance gives statistical credibility to a paradox that is pervasive to employers and government officials alike; the official unemployment rate of the country stands above 25%, but industry has issues finding semi-skilled and skilled labor.
This is especially true for South Africa’s chemicals sector, which is the fourth largest employer in the country’s manufacturing sector and accounts for approximately 5% of the country’s GDP. The nation’s chemicals firms and companies that are the end-users of chemicals have faced major skills shortages throughout their ranks as the uber-competitive global market for highly skilled labor has contributed to a brain drain from the country’s workforce, while simultaneously these employers must contend with a shortage of workers who can perform the everyday semi-skilled and skilled tasks necessary to keep a business running smoothly.
Some within the chemicals sector have come to the conclusion that in order to obtain the properly skilled workforce their industry and market requires, they must use their expertise to create it themselves. Chemical associations and, more interestingly, private firms across a variety of sectors are increasingly investing in in-house workforce training programs. These programs share expertise in a particular field in order for workers within the chemical industry and the end users of chemicals in a variety of industries to gain the knowledge necessary to service Africa’s largest economy. In markets worldwide this is often accomplished through a nationwide industry body. In South Africa one such body, Plastics South Africa, has provided such formal skills development courses since it was established in 1975.
Other sectors within the South African chemicals industry are more fragmented, yet still experience the same need to train and educate not only workers in the chemicals industry, but also those workers without the proper skills and knowledge base to properly use their product offerings. Three such companies, Villa Crop Protection, Den Braven, and AMT Composites have developed training programs in order to educate workers and potential customers throughout their respective sector. This decision benefits the industry as a whole as it creates a more educated workforce, but also makes business sense for the companies as well.
A local South African distributor, AMT Composites is involved in supplying advanced composites primarily to the aerospace, marine, and manufacturing sectors. AMT’s regular training seminars at their offices in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban provide a necessary platform to train their customers on how to properly and efficiently use their products. As Jo Jacinto, Director of AMT Composites, explains: “Because South Africa has traditionally had a very weak skills base, we have to bring in process technology to sell our products. Without such a strong understanding of how to process our products, AMT Composites would not be half the company it is today. We are unique in the value we add through our education of customers.”
Netherlands-based Den Braven Sealants has faced a similar situation as it distributes to the South African market. Construction workers must properly apply its adhesive products in order to be effective. Averil Webbstock, managing director of Den Braven South Africa, says: “Sales representatives are trained as consultants and are able to technically assist customers. Den Braven is able to provide this technical consultation both onsite and in our training center at the company’s offices”.
In the agricultural sector, Villa Crop Protection is set to launch its own ambitious academy later this year. “The academy fills a huge void in the market we see in training, while at the same time this is also a branding exercise to help support our company,” says Managing Director Dr. André Schreuder.
Villa Crop Protection’s training academy is planning to provide 50 courses that will be open to everybody in the agriculture industry and interested in acquiring or refreshing on skills.
These training academies are the product of companies taking the initiative to help their industry remain competitive despite the challenges the South African labor market has presented to them. Their common theory is that the better their end users are able to utilize their products, the more successful their customers’ businesses will be, which will lead to increase demand for their product offerings, especially their higher-end products. These programs seek to drive the engine of personal development, which in turn allows businesses to thrive and entire industries to gain ground on the competition.