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Reactions in the media to the release of the latest updated critical skills list — the list that is the basis for decisions about the granting of visas to work in SA — have gone in two main directions.

First, there has been a predictable yet misguided indignation about why we need foreigners to be our engineers, zoologists, sheep shearers and economists, among others. Second, the inverse is also visible: a celebration by those sectors (and in relation to specific types of occupations) that now find it easier to hire “the best” from abroad.

This time around there has been less overt focus on the weaknesses of the lists or the processes of developing them. This is interesting given the many obvious problems with skills planning we still have.

The critical skills list is a subsection of a national list of Occupations in High Demand, which is the result of various policies and systems driven by myriad institutions that have been created to improve skills anticipation and planning, to ensure that skills “supply” is meeting “demand” in the economy.

One of the problems with the way these lists are developed and used is that they do not support or enable flexible, responsive or dynamic skills interventions. Another is that employers do not usually look to hire per occupation, but rather for specific combinations of skills and experience.

There are also perplexing requirements. For example, if you want to bring in a foreign manager or director they must have a minimum qualification at NQF level 8. Many years of running a call centre or similar business and in-depth knowledge and experience are not sufficient.

Another problem is how the lists are developed. They are mainly based on analysis of sectoral plans, as well as a review of certain national data sets that provide an indication of current labour force trends and a review of government plans. The sectoral plans are primarily based on the workplace skills plans and annual training reports that medium and large companies submit to the sectoral education & training authorities (Setas).

This carries with it a number of limitations. First, employers are forced to report their requirements against the Organising Framework for Occupations, a tool that requires employers to specify needed occupations in ways that work is often not organised, particularly given the rapidly changing nature of the workplace.

Second, our skills planning systems are limited because the information provided in the tools, such as the workplace skills plans, are focused on the current and emerging skills gaps that employers identify in a particular year.

By contrast, on the “supply side” we have a complex set of systems and requirements for quality assurance of educational provision, as well as for developing qualifications, that are at best appropriate for long-term planning — by which time the skills identified in the Occupations in High Demand list may no longer be needed.

Yet these requirements are also brought to bear when employers or education providers are trying to plan short-term training interventions — often making them impossible to deliver and leaving no mechanism to fund these demand-led interventions.

The system requires greater flexibility. In particular, we need a separation between the systems and requirements focused on current and emerging skills needs, and the systems and requirements focused on identifying and addressing medium- to long-term skills needs. Short-term skills needs require permanent and direct relationships between educational providers and employers; planning for provision must be integrated into the processes that determine what skills companies require for inclusive growth.

This in turn requires an emphasis on the development of the institutional capacity of providers and employers, so that they can provide short-term responses, as suggested in the skills strategy to tackle the immediate imperatives of the Economic Reconstruction & Recovery Plan. The process of identifying skills needed for different sectors needs to be dynamic and enduring, not a one-off event that creates cast-in-stone lists.

There are numerous examples, which we have explored during high-level stakeholder engagement processes, where educational role players can be embedded into economic planning processes. These include some of the master plan processes, where role players are seeing the value of integrating a focus on skills into broader industrial development strategies, as well as the workstreams being introduced by the department of higher education & training together with the department of employment & labour and the presidency.

These combine role players with job opportunities and those responsible for educational provision. Further, interventions such as the National Pathway Management Network can assist in the short term by providing a picture of who work seekers are, so that we can deal with specific needs and connect these work seekers to learning and work opportunities.

In the medium to long term we have to recognise that skills planning is not and cannot be linear. There are serious limitations to how well we can figure out upfront what specific skills will be needed in the medium and long term. Instead, we should be building the capacity of educational institutions and systems, recognising that educational offerings take time to design and that constantly “reforming” education and training provision (the so-called supply side) undermines education provision by creating policy uncertainty.

Also, where long-term planning decisions are made, planning for narrow or specific skills works against the interests of both prospective workers and employers, due to the rapidly changing nature of the world of work. Bodies of knowledge that underpin the ability to perform work, and which are acquired in educational institutions, are crucial to perform work with autonomy, but there is no simple relationship between specific tasks in workplaces and such bodies of knowledge. This is why planning for the medium and long term has to be in relation to broad areas of expertise and occupational roles.

Developing the real skills needed for our economy requires strong institutions and linkages across skills ecosystems. The state’s role is to strengthen and build providers, not just check up on them or occasionally give them grants. This suggests the need to shift from the current funding formulas and management systems — especially those for technical vocational education & training colleges — in order to build strong educational institutions. These must be able to deliver programmes enabling graduates to develop the skills required by the economy in the longer term and that have the adaptive capacity to respond to demand and deliver relevant interventions in the short to medium term.

At the moment colleges can hardly even teach on time, because they have to go through government procurement processes and often cannot get the consumable equipment essential for their training programmes. Engaging with these kinds of issues is a more meaningful response to the list process.

• Allais is professor of education and SARCHI research chair in skills development at the Centre for Researching Education & Labour at Wits University.

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