Upskilling of workers is essential in a shrinking economy and job market

The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged long-term ideals that society has largely held around wage, employment and the value of work. Yet, workers have the power to determine their own economic destiny while contributing to the greater good of society. 

The culture of mediocrity, which has plagued government and privately employed labour, has resulted in a serious skills shortage in key industries and is affecting the local economy. South Africa must realise that in a digital economy, access to knowledge and skills is the final frontier in the pursuit of power  for the worker.

Recent reports highlight that South African workers are slacking! Productivity is measured by several factors including innovation, morale and economic activity. This dropped by 5.88% in December, according to the Department of Labour. While the most pressing labour issue in the country is unemployment, a simmering brain drain of a different form is facing South African employers and it is time for both workers and employers to start taking responsibility.

Worker empowerment, in light of these factors, should be focused on boosting the morale and work ethic of the average employee. This can be done by holding them to higher standards of excellence and providing environments that make these standards attainable. Initiative from both workers and organisations will be most effective in achieving this.

This is an idea that has been tabled by unions in Parliament and addressed directly with employers but, unfortunately, much of the public discourse around union engagements in South Africa focuses far too much on wages without enough emphasis on skills development.

An era of self-driven prosperity awaits

The International Labour Organization speaks of building a “better normal” in the post-Covid-19 world of work in its guide on how trade unions can engage more effectively in skills development policies and practices. This “better normal” should focus on skills development and lifelong learning as technological advances become more influential in the transformation of the workplace.

While organisations are being thrust into markets where technology is allowing their peers to do more with less, global economic pressures are also forcing companies to do away with as many permanent employees as possible. We need a multi-faceted approach that challenges old ways of managing the conditions of the workplace and the manner in which people are hired.

As the current and shrinking workforce appears to be demanding more for less each year, with regular disruptions and disputes over salaries, a larger group of desperate job-seekers are pining for employment opportunities. It appears that workers would sooner fight for fewer working hours and more pay than to mobilise for skills development that will make them more valuable employees.

In these conditions, it would be ideal for workers in all spheres, from the professional to the informal artisan, to rethink how they position themselves as extractors and contributors to the economy. Functions that traditionally required several workers in industries such as finance, media and information technology, are being coagulated into fewer and fewer job posts, forcing workers to adapt or be left behind.

Organisations cannot be exempt from responsibility in this regard — despite the lack of incentive to retain under-skilled workers, a culture of in-house training and up-skilling labour policies can be as effective if not ultimately better for business than simply shedding dead weight.

On the other end of this spectrum, are industries in South Africa which are struggling to make these necessary transitions because labour regulation constraints leave businesses stuck in increasingly unproductive business models. This can be painfully observed in the latest labour data from the Census and Economic Information Centre (CEIC) 2020, which saw a significant decline in labour productivity and multifactor productivity which measure the efficiency of workers as well as innovation in the workplace.

If major industries are beginning to lag in productivity during a time when the country’s economy has never been more fragile, we can expect a continuation of this trend. We can also expect the disturbing phenomena of annual mass retrenchments and scores of businesses shutting down to continue on the same trajectory.

As workers face this curveball in the private sector, government workers are facing determined efforts by government to spend less money on labour, which could mean the stagnation of wage increases over the next few years. While labour unions have criticised this “austerity” move by government, economists and corporate lobbyists have long called for government to shrink its wage bill.

The role of the living wage in 2022

Another debate rising from the ashes of the pandemic is whether the National Minimum Wage (NMW) is still relevant and feasible given the health and economic crises facing the country.

The NMW in South Africa was established at a time when the median wage in South Africa was R3,033 a month and around half of the workers in South Africa earned at or below this amount. In 2022, the NMW was increased from R21.69 to R23.19 per hour, despite the economy making a slow recovery, recording a 1.2% gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the fourth quarter of 2021.

While the humanitarian argument can be made for using the NMW to protect vulnerable workers from economic pressures, it cannot be ignored that South Africa’s “cheap labour” phenomenon is tied to the historically low-skilled labour force which desperately needs mass intervention. Workers need to work harder to increase the value being created by employees by creating more opportunities for growth for the businesses they work for.

In 2015, approximately six million workers were in the lowest wage bracket in sectors including agriculture, domestic work, private security, contract cleaning and the taxi industry. South Africa needs to work to boost skills development at this level. Not only will this lead to a more organic increase in wages as the value of work increases, but it will result in a more professional workforce.

If there is one word that comes to mind when one ponders the paradigm we find ourselves in, it is power. The balance of power has shifted towards the worker in the determination of their own destiny and relying less on hand-outs. As South Africans achieve greater access to relevant knowledge, the power is held by each of us to embrace the new normal with open minds.

This is how South Africa will not only survive the catastrophes of the last few years but thrive in the future, bringing the rest of the continent with it. DM

“Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability.

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