How to develop South African workers for the future

Estimated read time 6 min read

Various global researchers are convinced that the skills required by the world’s future
labour force are biased towards STEM (science technology engineering and
mathematics). Employees of the future will be in greater demand, if they understand;
artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, manufacturing, scientific research, software and
machinery development, among others.

The STEM capabilities will also need to be balanced by other employees who have soft
skills such as critical thinking (analysis), leadership ability and emotional intelligence.
Since the mentioned soft skills are already available in abundance, nations around the
world are more concerned about how to develop more talent in STEM. A failure to
promptly plan for the transformation will result in the ineffectiveness of any lagging
economies. Such countries will increasingly lose competitiveness. That will then
translate into a growing reliance on foreign products and services, alongside increasing
domestic levels of poverty.

If South Africa aims to prepare its workforce for the future, there is an urgent need for
the relevant government departments to design policies which encourage the increasing
availability of graduates and PhD holders in the field of STEM.

Policy proposals

There will be a natural need to increase the intake of STEM students at tertiary
institutions. As more scholars study STEM qualifications, the economy will be better-
equipped for development, through churning out a greater number of graduates with
highly demanded skills. Since high schools and universities may have limited financial
capacity to support this growth in student numbers, the government will need to make
provisions through recurrent grants (especially to state schools and universities) which
will support the endeavour. In China, for example, between 2012 and 2021, the
country’s Ministry of Education increased yearly spending on higher education, from $24
billion to $47 billion. This type of government assistance is what enabled the country to
support its unparalleled economic growth in the past few decades. Without capable
human capital, that economic growth would have been stifled.

Government will also need to keep records on the number of active tertiary and
professional (private and public sectors) research projects, nationally, each year. The
expenditures made in these research endeavours will also need to be known. Keeping
track of activities and expenditures in research will be a good basis for understanding
whether the country is improving its commitment towards the acquisition of new
knowledge, or not. Most robust economies keep records of these metrics religiously.
The USA and China, for instance, are the greatest spenders, globally, with around
US$720 billion and $441 billion in annual research expenditures, respectively, for the
year 2020. As a percentage of GDP, the US and Chinese R&D expenditures were an
impressive 3.4% and 2.4%, respectively. Since they (USA and China) are the greatest
spenders in R&D (innovative research and development), the countries also happen to
be the world’s two largest economies. This goes to show that, for an economy to grow,
or to sustain its expansion, there is an urgent need for it to continually grow its
knowledge base.

The bilateral relationships which SA shares with the highly skilled nations of Europe, the
UK, Asia and so forth, should be translated into knowledge transfers, as much as
possible. Local university faculties will need to be paired with various global leaders in
research, through partnerships with top foreign universities. One of the President’s top
requests during foreign visits, should be to negotiate for collaborative opportunities in
research and technology transfers, from the industries and educational institutions of
the sophisticated northern economies. China is the world’s largest manufacturer and
exporter of cars. For it to get to that height, it had to initially request for knowledge
transfers from Russia, to assist with the design of engines, gearboxes and vehicle body
parts, in the 1950s. Beijing requested the assistance whilst it was still a poor and
underdeveloped economy. It could have opted to emphasize aid and debt from Russia
but it chose to secure knowledge for its vehicle manufacturing industry instead. The
example serves to show that, in the future, South Africa’s political leadership must
continually place emphasis on human capital development, in their interactions with
countries of a higher development status. This is because industrial capabilities provide
greater rewards than debt or donor funds.

In order to increase the pace and vibrancy of R&D (innovative research and
development), the country will also need laws and structures which support “start ups”
(early-stage businesses). Registration of intellectual property (IP) should be accessible
and affordable for all. If a South African inventor has a dispute around copyright and IP
issues, both s/he and the defendant, should be provided with capable government

lawyers to represent and assist them, for no charge. This will be crucial since, the
guarantee that IP will be respected will encourage more innovations. Additionally, if local
entrepreneurs can secure their IP, they will be able to easily attract capital, as their
business-case will not be subject to imitative competition. This will serve the country
well because such protected businesses will grow, employ huge numbers and pay
taxes, unlike the case where too much imitation of business ideas leads to lower profits
and drives most entrepreneurs into the informal sector.

Knowledge in STEM should ideally advance to a level where reverse-engineering
becomes a national philosophy. The country needs to produce engineers who can
dismantle any foreign product and reconstruct it, based on the disintegrated
components which the product is made up of. This is how China is reported to have
gained machinery development capabilities. It is frequently argued that, Chinese
engineers would regularly strip down equipment from the Western world, for the
purposes of understanding it and learning how to design their own alternatives.
Some human capital deficiencies may also be easy to identify, using a shallow perusal
of local media reports pertaining to each economic sector. For example, certain civil
service offices (Home Affairs, Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, etc) are
notorious for breathtaking delays. Municipal workers have the same notoriety in other
fields. An inefficient public service reduces entrepreneurial, economic and profit making
opportunities, for the citizens whom it delays at government offices. The reverse is also
true, since effective government systems imply that, citizens can be able to apply
themselves more productively elsewhere, as soon as they leave government offices.
Moreover, since the government is a major employer, nationally, civil servants largely
set the standard for what a South African work ethic should entail. Thus, the agility of
government workers will need to be improved as a matter of urgency, in order to
influence the nation’s overall skills capacities.

Kevin Tutani is a political economy analyst-

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