‘Lord Finchley tried to mend the electric light himself. It struck him dead. And serve him right! It is the business of the wealthy man to give employment to the artisan’ Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953)

In the last decade, government and public attention has been focused on universities and the upper levels of tertiary education and on promoting the culture of toplevel technical innovation and the need for scientists and engineers capable of high-level research.  What seems to have been on the low burner is the ground floor of ‘tertiary’ education. I am referring to the army of artisans, the apprentices, the technicians and engineering technologists. Such trainees do not aspire to the same level of mathematics and theoretical science as traditional university graduates do. They are more suited to the practical skills. But what does not seem to be appreciated is that the number of this artisan and technician category should far exceed that of university graduates, probably by a factor of two or more, as is the case in most first world hi-tech countries.

This layer of our tertiary education demands more attention and debate than the higher levels of the education pyramid. My perception is that it is in a state of disarray in South Africa at present and demands urgent action. The frequent power, water and traffic system failures, the monotonous accidents of buses and heavy transport vehicles due to bad maintainence, collapse of bridges and concrete structures, the disasters on the hazardous chemical plants, the poisoning of wetland systems and the outburst of cholera due to improper microbiological control, are often perceived by public and officialdom as the outcome of inadequate production of graduate electrical, mechanical, civil and chemical engineers and equivalent graduate scientists.
The fact is that very few graduates would be put in charge of major plants and vital maintenance or inspection requirements without a great deal of experience, for the simple reason that they would not possess the prescribed competence or even ‘certificate of competency’. The technical complexity of the world we live in is forever increasing, and society becomes more dependent on an army of its members who know how the marvels of modern technology work in practice, how to assemble them and how to keep them working with almost zero defects in terms of safety to employees and the public, and with minimal damage to the environment. It is the forlorn army of technicians and artisans at a sub university level that are the critical professionals in our modern society and are vital in providing safety, efficiency, effectivness and quality in the factories. Why do I suggest that all is not in order on the ground floor?

It is the widespread opinion of those involved in these matters  We have been losing large numbers of technicians and artisans to overseas countries  We have hundreds of thousands of school leavers desperately looking for employment yet there is a desperate shortage of artisans. For example, we have to bring in 3 000 stainless steel welders from the Far East whereas a few decades ago we boasted the best welders in the world. Companies such as Escom have missions overseas to recruit technicians  It is common consent that registering with the Department of Labour is like dealing with a black hole   

The old technical colleges are in a parlous state with doubts being expressed as to their competence and function. They have lost large numbers of irreplaceable staff. The technikons, previously a main source of technician training, are moving towards producing graduates rather than technicians  A bewildering variety of authorities, councils, boards, training consultants and different government departments have been involved and have been working for a decade or more. The following is an abbreviated list of the acronyms of bodies that one has to contend with: NSDF, SAQA, NQF, NSL, SETAs, MQA, ETQAs, HEQA, DL, DME, DTI, DEd, ChETA, and many others related to specific industries. This does not include the professional engineering and science councils

They have all been hard at work defining in detail the qualifications needed for the many skills but the interactions are like a gigantic jumble of wool and there has apparently been much controversy as to who is responsible for what and who should get their hands on the lolly in the training levy; and when will there be a real output There have been new designations invented such as ‘learnerships’, ‘master artisans’, ‘learners’, ‘comprehensive institutions of higher learning’, but the old terms still remain, and the difference between an apprentice, an artisan, a student, and a learner has, as yet, not been defined Journal Comment The Cinderella of tertiary education ‘Lord Finchley tried to mend the electric light himself. It struck him dead. And serve him right! It is the business of the wealthy man to give employment to the artisan’ Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953)

There is no way that I can comprehend the complexity and intricacy of the state of play. The people I have talked to consider that it is going to be many decades before the work already done can be translated into syllabi and curricula for the existing or new institutions needed to provide the theoretical training. It will take even longer to establish the practical training and the legislation and authority to establish examinations and issue certificates of competency or whatever other designation is decided. Is it the case that most of the top echelons of our society are so busy ensuring investment, opening new projects and high-level financial manipulations that they are neglecting the job of providing the people to keep the ship afloat?

Is it unreasonable to suggest that a prime requirement is to expect the executive officers to ensure that a proper succession of skilled manpower is put in place. The specification of career paths and responsibility for skills acquisition and retention in a company is a high priority and not to be allocated to a remote manpower department or outsourced and forgotten—it is a critical management function! Likewise, is it unreasonable to expect government, through its departments of labour, education, and other technical orientated bodies, to recognize that the issue of certificates of competency, the setting of national examinations and the provision of educational facilities to complete the process of schooling and qualification for artisans, technicians and technical operators and foremen is every bit as important as the matriculation exam and university degrees?  
There must be a far greater collaboration and interaction between industry, government and the technical colleges or those institutions at a subuniversity degree level. The technical colleges do not know whether they are Arthur or Martha, their facilities are almost certainly outdated and the paralysis caused by this lack of confidence and indecision is lethal for staff recruitment. The problem is not simple. In the case of artisan training, two types of teachers are required—one to impart the practical manipulative skills, the other to give the theoretical background. Experience, maturity and promotional career paths are critical where health and safety are at stake.

There is a mammoth task ahead. The major industries have had to look after their own requirements and most of them have their own training establishments. The mining industry is vitally dependent on a host of skills at an artisan and technician level, and at least one of them has offered its facilities to the other industries. There was a thought that the artisan, as a blue collar worker, was an inferior qualification. Frankly there is such a huge abundance of unemployed with subuniversity school leaving certificates, this is a trivial consideration and there will be huge queues for any learnerships on offer. Undoubtedly the quick fix will be attempted, and recruiting missions will import a host of incumbents from any country with a large unemployment problem. The qualifications and real skills and competence will be questionable.
However, this will be an outrageous betrayal of all the promises of job creation from politicians and business leaders within South Africa.  Feb 2006