South Africa

South Africa is in a skills shortage crisis – where do we go from here?

Connecting Human Potential | Enablers of agile, focused and skilled workforces for the future
4 mins

It’s no secret that South Africa has a high level of unemployment – in fact, this year unemployment levels reached record numbers. But we have another massive employment crisis, and that is the desperate skills shortage in this country. Although this issue has been around for many years, it shows no signs of diminishing. In fact, it seems to be worsening. It’s true that there is a shortage of jobs, especially with the effects of Covid-19 and global lockdowns, but this is not the only reason for high unemployment. The reality is that the large majority of our workforce is woefully unqualified to take on the jobs that are available.


How did we get here?

While significant progress has been made in the years since the birth of our democracy, there is still a long way to go to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots. Bantu education was a brutally effective tool in disempowering Black South Africans and with decades of unequal education behind us, many South Africans do not have the skills required to thrive – or even function adequately – in a modern economy. 

On the opposite side of the same coin, many skilled people have left South Africa in the 27 years since the first democratic elections, resulting in the loss of invaluable industry knowledge and experience. And while there is no doubt that transformation was needed to balance the injustices of the past, many workers did not receive appropriate training before being thrust into new positions.  With no proper handover periods, scores of unskilled workers moved into skilled jobs. Each year, billions of rands are paid to international consultants and contract workers for skills that are not available within our local workforce. Add this to the fact that as the quality of education steadily declines, school leavers are becoming less skilled, and the picture is stark. We have a potential catastrophe ahead of us if we don’t act… and fast.


Mind the gap

Earlier this year, the Xpatweb Critical Skills Survey 2020/21 revealed that 77% of organisations are still struggling to recruit and obtain critical skills in South Africa for their local and cross-border operations. In addition, 76% of participants confirmed that an international search would assist their business in meeting its objectives. According to the stats, the top ten skills businesses are struggling to recruit include:

  • Engineers (18%)
  • ICT (13%)
  • Foreign language speakers (10%)
  • Media and Marketing Specialists (9%)
  • Artisans (8%); C-Suite Executives (7%)
  • Senior Financial Executives (6%)
  • Health Professions and Related Clinical Sciences (5%)
  • Science Professionals (4%) 
  • Accounting (1%).

It’s clear, then, that to ensure that there is sufficient skills supply in the future that the focus now should be on creating a pool of the right talent. Unfortunately, many of the current tertiary students are simply not studying subjects that support the industry’s need, especially when it comes to science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). And although there is a general shortage of artisans globally, in South Africa the problem is particularly dire – again thanks to the legacy of the old regime, who reserved quality training and jobs for the minority.

Part of the problem could also be a sign of the times: universities were not designed for today’s fast-changing market where curriculums change based on rapid technological advancements and skills depreciate faster than a new car driving out the show room. Not only are new occupations emerging and replacing others, but the skill set required in each existing vocation is changing and evolving. The scary reality is that half of the jobs today weren’t even around 25 years ago, which raises the question: how do you prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet? Education is no longer a finite thing; for workers and companies to stay relevant, education needs to be ongoing.


Where to from here?

Education and training

Extensive training and development strategies are vital components of the skills shortage crisis strategy. Government, educational and training organisations and industry must work together to facilitate the transfer of essential skills, knowledge and expertise. By doing so, the skills gap can be closed and workers can fulfil their potential and make meaningful contributions to the economic growth of the country. One excellent example of an effective skills development plan is a learnership – a work-based learning programme which provides a qualification that is registered in the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). Learnerships are directly related to a specific occupation or field, such as bookkeeping.

Transformation in thinking

The changes and shifts in traditional ways of learning and doing business present many challenges, but also opportunities to rethink conventional ways of doing things which were never previously questioned. For example, rather than being focused on recruiting a person based on an exact match to a specific job description, why not hire someone who has the character traits you are looking for or who demonstrates an ability to learn quickly? More often than not, training could help them develop the skills they need for the job. While it could take more time and effort, this approach provides access to a larger and more diverse pool of candidates.


Although many companies have implemented learnerships and skills development programmes due to legislative requirements such as the Skills Development Act and the B-BBEE Codes of Good Practice, it’s obvious that there are benefits for companies to do so anyway. Skills development is the answer to addressing the critical skills gap and when implemented correctly, it can increase employability levels. It is vital that policies such as the Skills Development Plan support job creation and economic growth but it’s as important that businesses contribute to building local skills through training and development and implementing succession planning at executive level.

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