By Melanie Mulholland

Demand-driven apprenticeships are a win-win in increasing the employment prospects of unemployed young people and closing the ever-increasing skills gap, but companies have to enable this process.

South Africa’s youth unemployment is at its lowest level for five years, but there are still major concerns about the long-term job prospects for the young.

According to a new report issued by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), South Africa ranks sixth globally in terms of youth unemployment, with a rate of 52.5 percent. Vocational interventions, like apprenticeships, are a much-needed solution for South Africa to prevent a long-term negative impact.

Participating in apprenticeships is one of the many ways in which employers can acquire and develop the skills they need, while improving the employability of the younger generation.

Employers’ end game

Employers articulate their skills needs and identify skills mismatches in their respective sectors with the end game of job creation. Employers have to be in the driver’s seat throughout the entire process, from consultation through to trade test implementation, in order to create successful 21st-century artisans.

Such holistic engagement by companies would enable and support quality apprenticeship programmes that address pertinent skills gaps which need to be closed. At the same time, it would support a committed and productive workforce that can add value. This would open up a pool of skills and pathways for new talent into companies, occupations and sectors.

Many employers immediately understand the benefits of taking on apprentices and recover the costs of their investment as early as the second year of the duration of apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships focused on the 21st century consist of three components: a theoretical component, a practical (simulated) component and a workplace learning component. This is a dual apprenticeship model. This mode of delivery combines learning in the workplace with learning at a Technical Vocational and Education College (TVET) in an integrated programme. This programme is now being referred to as the Artisan of the 21st Century or A21 apprenticeship.

In order to deliver A21 programmes, the involvement of employers is a fundamental pre-requisite. As part of this training, an apprentice undergoes national trade testing at an accredited trade test centre after completion of required theory, practical and workplace training requirements, certifying them for their skills.

While on qualification and recognition of learning, we need to be cognisant that South Africa has a history of placing a higher value on the academic pathway from school to university. In recent years, it has become more evident that this pathway does not fit everybody and, now more than ever, it is vital that as a country we develop high-quality vocational pathways that acquire the same respect that other educational choices. It is often a fact that qualified apprentices often earn more than their university counterparts.

Quality training is a unanimous trait that many employers from various sectors are demanding, especially in the manufacturing and engineering sectors. Businesses are overwhelmingly positive about 21st century apprenticeships and understand that work-based training can, indeed, boost much-needed skills and productivity – as well as the career prospects of young people. While the government is right to turn the spotlight on apprenticeships, I believe it is wrong to focus on numbers put through rather than the quality of apprenticeships.

South Africa’s target, according to the National Development Plan, is to deliver more than 30000 additional artisans every year until 2024. This target has plenty of associated risks in undermining the combined efforts in place to increase the profile of apprenticeships. The focus on achieving this arbitrary figure would lead to a robotic model, where apprenticeships come out of a production line and quality suffers. This, in turn, would end up with apprenticeships continuing to be seen as an inferior alternative to attending universities and institutions of technology.

To add to this, apprenticeships are expensive. The best and perhaps only way to encourage companies to take on apprentices is to increase their quality and relevance to business. If the quality is there then demand, from employers and potential apprentices, will naturally follow.

In order to increase the take-up among businesses, the government has to ensure that, when it comes to apprenticeships, the focus is on quality rather than quantity. Only then can we forge a credible alternative to the academic pathway, which businesses and young people can fully buy into.

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In addition, at the moment TVETs and accredited training providers offer a network of support for apprentices. Without the right level of support, we risk seeing more young people dropping out of the system. We need to advocate an “earn-while-you-learn” incentive since skilled workers are increasingly in demand.

As part of meeting quality and completion numbers, the youth should not be disillusioned by the minimum requirements and technical aptitude tests.

The system should ensure that the right attitude and skills for learning a trade are determined upfront in the recruitment and selection process and that the employer is assured the right candidate will become a 21st-century artisan.

Need for artisans

The question, then, is: why should the youth choose an apprenticeship over an academic university pathway? It is evident, especially in manufacturing, that the economy desperately needs 21st-century artisans ranging from welders, electricians, plumbers, riggers, fitters to boilermakers, among many others.

Corporate South Africa, specifically the manufacturing and engineering sectors, have started addressing some of the real challenges around apprenticeships and artisan development to achieve quality artisans for the 21st century.

Without apprenticeships leading to quality artisans, our prospects for a growing economy and meeting the need to provide jobs for the millions of unemployed young people will remain depressing.

Apprenticeships and skills are becoming very attractive because of their demand and the high likelihood of getting a job upon completion.

Melanie Mulholland is the Human Capital and Skills Development Executive at Seifsa, which owns the Seifsa Training Centre in Benoni.