Skills Gap Continues

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South Africa's shortage of skilled workers is having an increasing impact on the country's economy, with state and private businesses struggling to fill crucial positions.

Such is the consideration being given to the dearth of skilled workers and managers that when civil engineering and construction group Stefanutti & Bressan announced it was merging with international construction group Stocks Limited on March 11, it cited the need to increase its access to a trained workforce as one of the prime movers in the deal.

"A strengthened and expanded skills pool is possibly the most important advantage, particularly at management level where an industry-wide skills shortage is set to continue," Stefanutti & Bressan's chief executive Willie Meyburgh said.

Embattled state utility Eskom, already besieged over its inability to ensure electricity supplies, is struggling to fill nearly 850 positions at crucial levels throughout the organisation, public enterprises minister Alec Erwin told the parliament in early March.

To assist Eskom in overcoming its gap in expertise, France has sent seven engineers to South Africa to help define the country's most pressing needs in terms of power generation, capacity and maintenance, as well as provide advice on how to bring older power stations back on line.

In North West province, six Cuban engineers have started work to help speed up the delivery of infrastructure services and provide training to locals. The six are part of a larger team of 56 Cubans brought to South Africa in an effort to plug the skills sinkhole.

The shortage extends across most sectors of the South African economy, including the health field. According to the Gauteng Health Department, there is a worrying shortage of medical and support personnel in the province. While World Health Organisation studies show there should be 200 doctors for every 100,000 people in the community, that figure is just 29 in Gauteng.

Many of the country's 35,000 registered nurses have left the profession, largely seeking better pay and conditions, according to the South African Nursing Council.

The government has tried to reverse the exodus of trained workers from South Africa and to deepen the skills pool. In handing down the budget on February 20, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel announced R121bn ($15bn) would go to education, the largest single category of spending. He said further funds would be allocated for higher education and training.

"In particular, efforts to increase employment of young people have to be intensified and skills development better focused," he told the parliament.

According to Ken Alston of the University of East London, approximately 20,000 teachers leave the profession every year, while only 5000 graduate from training courses and enter the South African education system annually. It is here, Alston said, that a large part of the skills shortage originates, especially as the lack of educators in the initial years of schooling increases, crumbling away the foundations of basic education.

A recent study of international economic trends, carried out by US-based consultancy firm Grant Thornton, revealed that for the second year running South African businesses regarded the shortage of skilled staff as the biggest problem they faced.

Of the businesses surveyed, 48% said they suffered from a skills deficit, with 72% of these in the construction industry. In the services sector, 52% of companies reported a shortage of high-level workers. As the global average reported in the study of companies experiencing a shortage of trained staff was 37%, South Africa's difficulties in filling positions can be seen as acute.

On March 5, Farouk Soussa, sovereign ratings director with Standard & Poors, said the economic and political risk factors in South Africa were rising. While citing concerns over corruption and uncertainty over Jacob Zuma's bid for the presidency, Soussa told international media that South Africa's "economic growth potential has always been limited by its energy and infrastructure as well as its skill shortages".

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