Consolidated skills initiative is needed to support automotive component sector growth opportunities

Research done by High Gear - an initiative managed by the International Youth Foundation (IYF) to advance South Africa’s public TVET college system.

Historically, the skills development landscape within the South African automotive component manufacturing sector has been characterised by limited co-ordination between key stakeholders and the inconsistent implementation of key initiatives.

Whilst this status quo has not been unique to the automotive sector, it has contributed to growing concerns surrounding the robustness of the inherent skills held by the pipeline of new entrants to the sector, and their ability to contribute to the South African Automotive Masterplan 2035 growth targets and objectives.

To this end, High Gear undertook research to understand the nuances of skills development in the sector; unpack global best practices pertaining to developing a robust and highly skilled labour market; and to identify skills interventions required to support the growth of the South African automotive component sector.

Outcomes of the focus groups

Research done with National Association of Automotive Component and Allied Manufacturers (NAACAM) member companies noted that urgent responses to COVID-19, supply chain disruptors and the increased adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies are all demanding a more highly skilled and multi-disciplinary workforce. Discussing these change drivers, focus group participants placed emphasis on changing skills requirements pertaining to Industry 4.0 production methodologies, and the importance of nurturing robust ‘soft’ skills, as well as ensuring the development of a solid grounding in fundamental technical skills, to support the rapid change currently being experienced in the sector.

High Gear says that contrary to the narrative that Industry 4.0 threatens many entry-level occupations, evidence from workplace adoption of advanced technologies in the automotive component sector suggests otherwise. NAACAM members noted that changing skills requirements present a meaningful opportunity for shopfloor upskilling. They also noted that the adoption of advanced technologies can ultimately support cost-savings; yield productivity gains; enhance new business development and ultimately create new employment opportunities.

NAACAM Commercial Director, Shivani Singh, notes that the globally integrated production environment requires consistent investment by component suppliers in upgrading the technical proficiency of their shopfloor staff.

“Through NAACAM’s experience in delivering firm-level competitiveness upgrading interventions, it has become clear that traditional kaizen and production optimisation methodologies are not sufficient to ensure the South African supply base can compete with low-cost manufacturing destinations such as Thailand and Malaysia.”

“South African suppliers which have been successful in implementing Industry 4.0 methodologies are those which nurture a holistic approach to skills development in their organisations, and which prioritise the development of ‘lateral’ inter-disciplinary skills,” she adds. 

To capitalise on these opportunities, employers who were researched highlighted the criticality of improved ‘soft’ and technical skills within the graduate pipeline entering the sector. To identify and adapt to change, the sector requires a workforce which is agile, highly proficient in problem-solving, and which displays a willingness to learn on-the-job. Moreover, to support the uptake of new technology, sound technical skills remain a key requirement for new entrants as identified in the High Gear survey. Employers, however, report difficulties in identifying prospective employees with these skills.

Learnings from best practice and implications for the delivery of High Gear

Global best practice applied in Turkey and Germany show that along with substantial, co-ordinated, and continued investment into skills, there are four core elements behind building a robust and highly skilled labour market says High Gear. These are:

  1. Strong primary and secondary education: This forms the basis for further learning, both in tertiary education and in the workplace.
  1. Sound career guidance and improved reputation for technical qualifications: Relevant career guidance is required to direct those best-suited into technical fields. It is essential that the reputation of this training needs to be bolstered to ensure industry buy-in, and to gain greater interest from prospective students.
  1. Strong linkages between the private sector, tertiary institutions, and government: This is necessary to ensure alignment between tertiary curricula, industry needs, and policy, thus generating greater industry support for tertiary institutions and apprenticeship programmes. Moreover, initiatives tackling immediate skill needs must be implemented swiftly to ensure relevance, but the initiatives cannot lose sight of the long-term future needs of the sector to ensure sustainability and global competitiveness.
  1. Focus on training transferable skills: Certain skills needs are company-specific and will require internal training. This sentiment was amplified by focus group participants. Strong fundamental and transferable skills, both technical and ‘soft’ are needed to ensure this internal training is efficient and cost-effective. Moreover, financial support must be leveraged by companies to support this training.

Considering the research findings, High Gear says its scope of work aims to provide a consolidated initiative to tackle the challenges faced by industry and support TVET colleges to build a strong pipeline of graduates. These initiatives include:

  • Lecturer development: The empowerment of lecturers to instil the fundamental technical and ‘soft’ skills in their learners and ultimately become a pillar for the improved reputation of TVET colleges
  • Facilitation of work-integrated learning (WIL) for both lecturers and students: This ensures industry-relevant training and paves the way for increased collaboration between TVET colleges and industry
  • Career guidance: High Gear will be launching a digital career experience platform in the first quarter of 2022 that aims to educate learners on the opportunities within technical qualifications, specifically within the automotive component sector

SETA Grant Advisory Service: The service is being trialled in the KwaZulu-Natal region to support automotive component manufacturers leverage merSETA discretionary grants to support their in-house training.