Maverick Citizen


Why we don’t get skills planning right – it’s just not that simple

Why we don’t get skills planning right – it’s just not that simple
There is a skills crisis, a skills gap and a skills mismatch. (Photo: iStock)

We need to harness insights from a range of disciplines to ensure a diverse set of knowledge, expertise and skills required for meaningful economic and social development.

Policy debates about skills regularly highlight many problems with our education and training system, some of which are echoed in frequent daily conversations. 

A common one is a kind of moral panic about too much academic education, which some fear will give young people “delusions of grandeur”. We hear statements like, “what will they do with all this academic education? Our young people need practical skills to get a job.” 

Then there are debates about spending: policymakers have to decide how much money to spend on which courses and programmes and how the money should get to institutions to ensure that they perform. Another frequently voiced policy-oriented concern is that education institutions (and by implication ministries and departments of education) are not “producing the right skills”. 

Policy solutions developed to solve these policy problems often disappoint. “Manpower planning” fell into disrepute in the 1980s when it was replaced by labour market analysis and skills anticipation, with a hefty dose of “coordination” and “stakeholder engagement”. 

One apparently simple idea that is part of this is “asking employers what skills they need” and paying education institutions that provide them. It seems super-intuitive, yet the results are very mixed. South Africa is a poster child for the development of systems, rules and tools, projects and institutions intended to try to find out from employers what they need, and to coordinate across government and economic players. 

But we still are told that there is a skills crisis, a skills gap and a skills mismatch. 

Understanding why this is the case and developing insights that could inform better policy interventions requires interdisciplinary research, such as that being undertaken at the Wits Centre for Researching Education and Labour, which marks its 10th anniversary with a conference focused on this very issue. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Our skills problem cannot be fixed outside of the economy – it must be part of the messy process of structural change

So, how does our work bridge the gaps in terms of interdisciplinary collaboration?

Educational researchers often don’t engage with debates about “skills”. One reason may be that the sheer overwhelmingness of the school system, with all its problems and complexities, takes over the research agenda. Another may be that educationalists tend to believe strongly in the intrinsic value of education and are suspicious of any area of research or policy that seems to see education as instrumental or economistic. The low status of vocational education in most of the English-speaking world may also make skills and vocational education less attractive for academic researchers. 

All of this is unfortunate because it abdicates the terrain to the apparent elegant simplicity of the operations of labour markets, an area primarily staked out by economists. 

At its most simple, this terrain is defined through a focus on individuals, aggregated up into an idea of a labour market that is seen as a single market operating much the way other markets operate. 

A prevalent idea which informs the emphasis on individuals is Human Capital Theory. This approach presents a neat virtuous cycle in which providing individuals with knowledge and skills makes them more productive, helping them to secure or improve their employment status or income-generation capacity, and in turn makes firms and organisations more productive, leading to increasing national prosperity and well-being. 

The appeal to policymakers is obvious, which may be why it has become the underlying assumption of many policy interventions. The hope is that this market will reach equilibrium in terms of employer “demand” for particular skills, and supply of these skills through education institutions, if the prices are right. 

Many interventions start by arguing that labour markets for skills do not reach this equilibrium because not all players have the same information available to them. This takes us back to the extensive systems that we have developed for labour market analysis and skills anticipation, which are intended to feed better information into education and training systems. 

But if employers know what they want, and they want trained people, why don’t they train them? Why do they need to be incentivised to do so?

Complex mixture 

The first problem is that the word “skills” simplifies what is in fact a complex mixture of theoretical and applied knowledge that is acquired through education and training programmes. There are three complex areas from educational research that need consideration in this regard: knowledge development, curriculum, and learning/pedagogy. 

Research on knowledge examines how bodies of knowledge are developed, and how they inform everyday working knowledge. 

Research on curriculum examines how selection can and should be made from bodies of knowledge into the curriculums of educational programmes in ways that enable meaningful learning. One important issue in this regard is the relationship between theory and practice. 

The idea of meaningful learning and the relationship between theory and practice takes us to the third research area of pedagogy and learning. Here there is considerable debate about where different kinds of learning happen best – which shows why learning at work is important for some kinds of knowledge and skill, but of little value for others. 

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Ideas from these research areas are key to understanding why asking employers what skills they require can lead to bad policies: employers think in terms of jobs or tasks or combinations of skills but not in terms of what bodies of knowledge underpin work in a particular area. 

Visualising a complex system

A second problem is that “skills” aren’t commodities that can be separated from the skilled person or from the work organisation of the workplace in which the skill is used – which relates to conditions of work and the skills and abilities of managers. This takes us to research into work, labour markets, economic development, and skill formation that foregrounds relationships and institutions.

Sociology of work and institutional political economy look at workplaces and education and training systems as complex sets of institutions that affect each other and are embedded within social and economic arrangements that shape and are shaped by the nature of education and training systems. We need to visualise a complex system in which changing any one part will have an effect on all the others. For example, whether collective bargaining takes place at a company or industry-wide level has an impact on skill formation. 

Research gap

The third problem is that education is often seen as a development outcome – a set of targets that countries must achieve, such as through the Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals, although it is also described as a key ingredient for economic growth. But the international development community does not (unsurprisingly) engage in tackling the unequal, hierarchical world economy, dominated by certain countries and giant monopolistic corporations.  

Research into the broader dynamics of skill-formation systems is poorly developed in relation to low- and middle-income countries. To date the research has been shaped by researchers in the Global North, where it is powerful in explaining, for example, dramatic differences in the size, quality and status of vocational education and training systems. 

This is a gap we are trying to address, and despite the complexity, our research offers insights for policy. For example, we show that our current skills anticipation systems mainly obtain information about immediate and short-term skills needs, but our planning systems, including systems for qualifications, are designed for medium- to long-term interventions (although they have many problems in their own right). 

Information about current and emerging skills needs is not helpful in the long term because our economy has to change, given the increasingly urgent environmental crisis as well as chronic inequality. This is why skill formation research must engage with development economics. 

In short, if we want to support the provision of a diverse set of knowledge, expertise and skills required for meaningful economic and social development as well as assisting individuals to improve their lives, we need insights from a range of disciplines, working with colleagues across disciplinary boundaries, while maintaining respect for disciplinary integrity. DM/MC

Stephanie Allais is the Research Chair of Skills Development at the Centre for Researching Education and Labour (REAL), University of the Witwatersrand. On 17 and 18 August, REAL will host a conference that explores many of the issues in this article. The theme is “Reflecting on 10 years of researching education and work” and forms part of the university’s centenary celebrations and also marks the 10th anniversary of the REAL Centre.

The programme is available here.


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