Skills Summit 2020: Following a Sustainable Process of Design and Construction

Skills Summit 2020: Following a Sustainable Process of Design and Construction

Adrian Schofield, programme and production consultant at the IITPSA addressed delegates at the Skills Summit last month.

How can you build a house by starting with the roof and the upstairs rooms? Surely, you must start with the foundations, doing the hard work of digging trenches and pouring concrete, before you get to see the upper levels. You must follow a sustainable process of design and construction, and using the right quality of components – bricks, timbers, pipes, tiles and paint. You have to check each step to make sure the structure will not collapse in the future.

How can you reap the harvest of maize without first going through the preparation of the soil, the planting of the seeds and the nurturing of the growth of the plants? You need to add the right fertiliser, you need to remove the weeds, you need to prevent insects from destroying the young plants. You need to reap the corn at the right moment, to supply it to the market in prime condition as well as retaining enough to start the next cycle.

Skills development is no different. Learning is a pathway, one step after another. Career development is a ladder, one rung after another. While it is possible to skip a step or make a sideways move, learning can only be accomplished from a sound base, a good springboard. Without a good foundation, it becomes almost impossible for the mind to absorb and make sense of its environment. Experience without context removes the basis for making sensible decisions.

Why is it OK to eat some plants and not others? Why is it OK to pet some animals and not others? Why is it OK to touch the stove plates at some times and not others? Why is it OK to drink some liquids and not others? Just to make it more challenging, more interesting, this learning does not take place within a rigid, predictable framework. There are choices and alternatives. Unexpected hurdles can block the path, new opportunities can arise, requiring that the approach to the next step or the next rung must be flexible – either to mitigate the risk posed by the hurdle or to take advantage of the opportunity.

What can we do, as mere mortals, to ensure that each succeeding generation benefits from the learnings of their predecessors? What are the essential ingredients that the community must include in the transfer of knowledge? It is the nature of our species that we first learn from our parents, our immediate families, our closest neighbours. They teach us basic communication and observation, what worked for them and what did not, in going through the routines of daily life. But over thousands of years, we also found it was much more effective if young people were fast-tracked into capability through the services of specialists in knowledge transfer – teachers in schools, artisans in the workplace, professors in universities, preachers in religious institutions. Over the millennia, this process produced many excellent examples of human achievement – scientists, musicians, engineers, playwrights, entrepreneurs – even the occasional politician! This process provided the foundation for the creation of marvels such as the pyramids, landing on the moon, iPhones, jet airplanes, combine harvesters, the Cahora Bassa dam and the minibus taxi.

We must not overlook the primary objective of the process, though. That goal is to enable each person to acquire the knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge for the creation of social and economic value, to enable each one to support themselves and their families in the acquisition of food and shelter, in the enjoyment of quality of life and in their interaction with other members of the community.

It is not sufficient to teach a child to read, if the content of the reading does not stir the child’s mind into thinking beyond the words. It is not sufficient to teach a person to write, if what is written does not communicate ideas to the readers, does not stir new thinking in the mind of the audience. It is not sufficient to teach arithmetic if the numbers are not used to create new models, new structures. At any age, but especially at a young age, learners must be curious. Not learning by rote, as I learned my “times tables” (9 8s, 11 12s…), but asking why things happen, why they appear so, how they work. Curiosity is the essential ingredient for self advancement – reaching beyond what is given, what is taught, to what lies beyond. We cannot be “spoon fed” the knowledge we need to tackle the life ahead of us, we must be actively engaged in acquiring that knowledge.

Sadly, part of the human condition is our tendency to “leave it to others”, to let someone else lead the way. We tend to organise matters into neat boxes, into silos of activity separated from others. In government, in industry and in the community, we talk about jobs, about occupations, about salaries and wages and grants. We have rules and codes and frameworks and scales against which everything must comply. This obscures the fundamental interdependency of people and communities and obstructs the flexibility required to overcome the challenges of changes in the environment. I don’t just mean climate change – I mean technological change, political change, economic change – even pandemic change.

Compared with organising people within communities (from family size to global size), herding cats is a simple task. No sooner do we solve one problem than we create another. We don’t have one group focused on skills development – we have many (DBE, DHET, SAQA, 20-odd SETAs, DCDT, DTIC, DHA, other line ministries, Presidential Commissions, professional bodies, labour unions, trade associations). Many, many groups, who are often pulling in different directions. We tend to devote much effort to measure the failures of the past (matric pass rates, graduate rates, unemployment rates) without learning enough to turn failure into success. It takes too long to turn a lesson from the past into action for the future. By the time new curricula are in the lesson plans, we have missed a generation. By the time a WSP and an ATR have merged into a SSP and the NSP, it’s too late to change the direction of funding initiatives. By the time we agree on what constitutes a critical skill, we don’t need it any more.

I do not lightly heap praise on our government’s outputs but I am very impressed with the DCDT’s National Digital Skills Strategy, gazetted this week. There is very little to criticise. It is the result of good research and displays in-depth understanding of the issues facing our country’s future development. I challenge all the stakeholders to buy into it and seek results in 2021 rather than just  promising results for 2031. Long time frames remove the possibility of effective accountability. We cannot eat an elephant without taking the first bite and we must finish the meal before the meat turns rotten from decay.

We sit in our groups and look out at what we think others should be doing but we are slow to take the initiative to help them. Industry complains that learners leaving the education pipeline at any level are unprepared for the world of work but there are still only isolated examples of initiatives to bridge that gap. Government complains that industry does not invest in skills development but government makes it easier for employers to import “critical skills” than to develop them locally. Does anyone monitor the skills transfer that supposedly follows an immigrant?

We watch things going wrong but do far too little to prevent repetition – we see schools burned and looted (there should be a should be a life sentence for that crime), we see fortunes being made from corruption in procurement, we know scrap dealers are profiting from theft of cables…

What can we do to move South Africa’s skills development activity forward at quantum speed?  Collaborate. Cooperate. Turn talk into action. Take responsibility. Industry and government must collaborate to implement solutions for curriculum change, for teacher education, for connectivity, to combat vandalism and other crimes. Employers and practitioners must cooperate to ensure that the people who exit education and training pipelines are employed or capable of generating economic value themselves. Education and training is a long term investment with a much greater return for our nation’s future than that derived from any short term plugging of a skills gap.

Of course, we cannot ignore short term issues, but they will forever be holding us back unless we fix our schools and the health of our young people. That is the solid foundation on which skills development and economic growth will be built, on which the future of South Africa depends. Above all we need a culture shift across the nation. A move from a patriarchal, dependent society to one where equal rights and equal opportunities are practised rather than preached.

As we deliberate on skills matters over the next couple of days, I urge you to find a way in which you personally can move us forward in building a South Africa that works. Collaborate. Cooperate. Act.