The service delivery dilemma: skills shortage or poor work ethic 3

The “skills shortage” has become a convenient scapegoat for most shortcomings in service delivery by municipalities, public utilities and government departments. Businesses in the private sector often use the same lament as an excuse for sloppy service.


The skills shortage is gradually achieving a revered status, heading the long list of socio-economic challenges of our country. Billions of rands are about to be spent by government on ambitious plans to eradicate this malady.


Listening to leaders of protesting communities the grievances are mostly about poor or non-delivery of commodities and services whose production requires the most basic of skills. Do you really need a B Sc Chem Eng degree to detect sewerage running into the streets? Is a CA qualification mandatory to sort out a R12 000 municipal account presented to a pensioner living in a cluster home?


Think of the challenges you are likely to face next time to get service from a municipal or government institution. Will its delivery demand rocket science type expertise from the responsible official? Unlikely. Most of the time it merely requires that person’s applying his/her mind to the job at hand.


Not for a moment do I want to ignore the skills shortage for engineers, accountants and many other professions and trades. However, increasingly I get the impression that lack of service delivery should be blamed on a pervasive poor work ethic. Instead of living up to the eight principles of the Batho Pele value system, many a public sector worker dispenses service with a mind over matter attitude: “I don’t mind and you don’t matter.” And increasingly you will encounter that attitude also being displayed by front- line service staff in the private sector. Somehow it has become contagious in SA.


If you tend to agree that we have a work ethic problem I would welcome your views on the causes and remedies. For instance


  • Is the poor work ethic the manifestation of an ideology of entitlement among workers?
  • Do different cultures in our country hold divergent views on the concept of work?
  • Would a performance management system implemented at grass root level, informed by cultural diversity and competencies, bring about a positive mind shift towards productivity?


I am about to embark on a major research project to find out how we can create a positive work ethic to make South Africa more of a winning nation. I would welcome evidence of a good and/or poor work ethic that you have encountered, and your suggestions on how to improve attitude. Please send your comment to

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3 thoughts on “The service delivery dilemma: skills shortage or poor work ethic

  • Brian Moores-Pitt

    A well-known American (I forget the name) was once asked “What single factor has made the greatest contribution to the growth of America?” The response was the phrase: “You are fired”. Makes you think doesn’t it?

  • Sylvia F. Hammond

    Hi Cor,

    I tend towards Des’s view. 

    My perspective is that the one skills shortage that we have is of Management.   In my experience senior levels are dominated by individuals who may be technically qualified, but have who have minimal people skills – or interest in developing those skills.  Their performance reviews are dominated by the bottom line and they’re interested in their own short term remuneration – not in the development of the people who are unfortunate enough to work for them.  There are obvious exceptions to this – people who prove the rule.

    I would suggest that what is needed to improve the work ethic, is to start at the top: re-train management in how to motivate and develop people, how to treat them with dignity and respect – they are adults after all – they are not machines or robots, or children.  If management expect their staff to treat customers politely and to provide effective service, then wouldn’t you expect that Management would use their own communication and behaviour with staff as an example?     

  • Des Squire

    Hi Cor

    To a degree I share your thinking but in some respects I disagree. Many of our employees have been held down and subjugated for far too long by managment. Many feel this is still the case and in many instances it is true. Management still live in the past and make no provision for the new generation employee. 

    Yes, productivity levels are low and work ethic in many instances does not exist. Training and Education can assist in empowering and up skilling of employees but this in itself will do nothing to change attitudes.

    In order to achieve the outcomes we require, in order to achieve desired productivity levels there is a need to work on the “Mental State and wellbeing” of employees. This necessitates instilling a sense of self worth, a sense of importance, developing and permitting innovative thinking and most importantly letting employees know we are ther to help and assist. This necessitates recognition and encouragement.

    In the public sector we might well add the need to upgrade the working conditions of all public sector employees. If I had to work under some of the conditions and in some of the public service facilities to which I have been exposed, believe me I would also have a bad attitude and a poor work ethic.