SA needs a Skills Revolution and the working class must take responsibility for it

By sylviahammond, 17 May, 2012

By Blade Nzimande, SACP General Secretary

This week I attended an important gathering of UNESCO, focusing on sharing experiences on how to strengthen technical and vocational education (TVET). An important consensus was reached that good and quality TVET is critical for inclusive economic development in general, and for human development in particular. As we discuss the implementation of a new growth path, the industrial policy action plan and rollout the infrastructure plan in our country it is absolutely essential that the matter of skills development be prioritized. This is an essential component of micro economic transformation.

As we debate the notion of a developmental state we need to realize that for the state to be developmental it needs capacity and state capacity cannot be build on the backbone of an unskilled working class. The skills and capacity are even more critical for Socialism as under socialism we will need more capacity and efficiency to address the needs of the overwhelming majority of the workers and the poor, with the working class playing its leading role. Skills development should feature as prominently alongside the living and social campaigns.

To bring about rising living standards and a better life for all our people, South Africa must have an increasingly productive economy which creates decent jobs for workers on a large scale. Our workers must, steadily but decisively, improve their educational and skills levels, especially their technical and vocational skills. This will enable our country to set out on a new and sustainable growth path, with a regenerated manufacturing industry and the new jobs that will accompany this.

Manufacturing will not only create new jobs in the actual production of goods, but also stimulate other employment in services such as transport or telecommunications and even encourage further development in primary industry such as mining and agriculture.

In order to achieve all this it is essential for the country to undergo a skills revolution - a process that must make certain that every citizen is trained to a high level and can contribute productively to social and economic development. This will ensure that we overcome the effects of job reservation and cheap labour which was such an important part of the strategy of oppressive colonial and apartheid regimes for over a century. Job reservation did not allow blacks to do skilled work - and so prevented most South Africans from becoming skilled artisans, technicians or managers and banned them from all but a few professions. Since 1994, we have done surprisingly little to overcome the effects of this legacy.

One of the main reasons for this lack of progress is that the working class has not yet fully taken responsibility for the skills revolution. Unless we ourselves drive the process and ensure that our children and our communities appreciate the need for it, no skills revolution can be successful. The working class and it's organisations must play a central role in ensuring that employers allocate sufficient resources to training and that they play their part in skills development and especially in technical and vocational education and training (TVET). Whilst we need to mobilize all social forces behind a skills revolution, Worker driven and worker led TVET is an essential component in the struggle for the transformation of South Africa's workplace.

Vocational education at the skilled artisan level not only allows workers to make a decent living, but can also lay the basis for further studies leading to technician or professional qualifications.

In some highly developed countries with strong manufacturing industries like Germany and Switzerland, up to 70% of young people go into an apprenticeship straight from basic education, usually at the age of sixteen. It is also essential that workers take up in earnest the issue of artisan aides - who are essentially doing artisan work but without proper certificated upgrading and consequently not paid as such - to become full artisans.

At the UNESCO Congress in Shanghai, China, many delegates made the point that in those countries with low-skilled workforces; technical and vocational education tends to have a low status. Poor attitudes to vocational training are based on an outdated, elitist attitude to manual work that doesn't recognize it's economic value or it's potential to create wealth for the individual or society. China has recognized that skills are essential for raising the living standards of its people and is investing heavily in technical and vocational education at both senior secondary and higher education level.

It would be wrong to say that education and training can on its own create jobs; it COULD just create people who are educated but unemployed. However, it is also true that without an educated and skilled work-force it is not possible to have the level of economic growth and development that creates enough decent jobs in line with our developmental agenda. It is essential for a country to have good policies for economic development, including policies for industrial development, for the development and maintenance of infrastructure, and for job creation more generally. But for such policies to be successful, education and training are essential.

Our government is now starting to tackle seriously the issue of skills development in South Africa. The working class should assert itself to ensure that its interests are placed at the center of this process.

Unions and worker-led community organisations must take a lead in advising government on education and training policy and take up these issues in their respective workplaces. They should encourage workers to participate in strengthening our FET colleges and SETAs, and even our schools that provide the basic education that every person needs in a developmental state. Unions must insist that their employers - in both the private and the public sectors - play their role in training both new workers as well as those already in employment. They should insist that the apprenticeship and learnership systems become entrenched as an integral part of the activities in every workplace.

Every workplace should become a training space!

The working class must not only work to ensure the existence of some kind of TVET but should concern itself with the type of education that is provided. We must always insist that the TVET curriculum should not be narrowly occupationally focused; it should also include significant elements of social studies, humanities and ethics. This is because all education should prepare people to live as responsible members of society who contribute to not only to its economic life, but also to its social, cultural, scientific and political life. Workers ARE producers of goods and services, but they are also citizens and rounded human beings with a whole range of interests.

Also important is for workers to advocate for the recognition of prior learning (RPL) so that the knowledge they have acquired through practical experience can be recognised, certificated and rewarded.

Another important issue is to design a system of qualifications in which there are no dead ends and that all TVET qualifications open articulation pathways to higher learning for those who wants to continue studying.

In engaging with training policies, we should be aware of a view coming from some on the left that actually conflicts with the interests of the working class. This view argues that all skills training is just for the benefit of capital, to help it to increase profits. It follows, according to this argument, that any policy to prioritise training or skills is just promoting the needs of capital and is anti-working class. This is a fallacy. Skills will, in fact, strengthen the working class and make workers less expendable, especially if the working class itself is at the head of this struggle.

Similarly we must critique the right wing and liberal notion that education and training is narrowly only for the workplace. Central as education and training is for the labour market, but it must be broad enough to empower our youth and workers with the necessary knowledge and capacity to deepen and consolidate the national democratic revolution.

The SACP hopes that the forthcoming COSATU Education and Training Conference in July will tackle the issue of TVET in particular, as well as clearly define its role in skills development in general. The SACP is of the view that COSATU in particular has an important role to play in driving a progressive skills agenda.

 This article first appeared in the SACP journal Umsebenzi Online


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