Skip to main content.

Skills for the future

Author: Professor Heila Lotz-Sisitka - Rhodes University

( Article Type: Sustainable Development )

“We need more scientists” ...
“We need a new breed of scientist” ...
“We need scientists that know their science” ...
“We need scientists that are socially connected with integrative skills” ...
“We need more social scientists working on environmental issues” ...
“We need more trained environmental educators to engage with the public”...
“We need more water quality management technicians” ...
“We need more environmental engineers” ...
“Not enough attention is being paid to environmental practices training in local government”...
“We need to develop leadership capacity”.

These are just some of the calls emerging from people in the environmental sector; as they articulate the need for capacity to respond to global change and environmental challenges.

South Africa has released its first ever Environmental Sector Skills Plan (ESSP) . This is significant because it addresses the hitherto reactive, ad hoc approach to skills development in the environmental sector. Currently no national system of recording environmental employment exists. This makes skills planning very difficult. There is, as yet, no dedicated Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA) for environment, and environmental concerns are scattered across the SETAs. There is no co-ordination mechanism that ensures coherence and adequate skills system responses to environmental sector skills needs across the SETAs.#

The consequences of this re-active, ad hoc approach to skills development are profound. Most significant is the increasing ‘skills gap’ which is coupled with the lack of an adequate mechanism for releasing skills sector funding for environmental training and capacity building. Only 2.4% of South Africa’s learnerships are ‘environmental’ and few of these are ‘in use’. The skills system is largely under-utilised for environmental capacity development purposes. This in turn is linked to inadequate environmental education and training capacity; and poor workplace skills planning. Supply does not meet demand, and leadership skills are in short supply to drive the sector forward. While this is the case it is significant that there is increased interest in environmental career options amongst young people, and university students, but there are inadequate scholarships and career path development opportunities for them.

If this is the situation now, with current challenges so explicit, what is to be done in a situation where new environmental concerns arise (e.g. climate change); new policies and approaches keep emerging; and the issues become more complex? Are we prepared for a climate change and a Green Economy? Where will the skills come from to service sophisticated new plans for creating jobs through new green technologies and development? Who will provide the training for these new occupations if the skills system is currently underutilised and we lack adequate ‘training of trainers / educate the educators’ programmes? Where will the skills come from for re-orienting the economy and society to sustainable development? What is to be done?

The EESP proposes a number of inter-related responses to the current situation. The Plan is not just a government document, but a guide for all national stakeholders with an interest in environmental sector skills development. It’s success lies in multiple stakeholders actively supporting a pro-active, futures oriented approach to skills development for the environmental sector in South Africa. It needs a whole system response.

These are some of the ways of getting involved:
• Improve workplace skills planning to include meaningful environmental skills training opportunities. Make sure environmental skills planning is included in workplace skills plans; and that the training opportunities funded through this mechanism are of a high quality. Align internal environmental training plans with Key Performance Areas and performance monitoring. Attending a short course does not by itself lead to improved workplace-based performance.
• Support environmental bursary schemes that fund scarce skills as bursary funding for environmental occupations are too few, and are often inadequate for supporting young scholars to access training opportunities, and honours, masters and PhD level studies. Some of the most widely cited scarce skills include environmental engineers; environmental scientists; climate change scientists (social and natural sciences); and sustainable development planners; soil scientists; water scientists; environmental lawyers, and environmental educators (with capacity to work with the wider training system).
• Improve internal mentoring, leadership capacity development and retention programmes to keep talent in the environmental sector. Pro-actively find ways of attracting younger people and good leaders to the environmental sector; especially black women professionals.
• Engage substantively with issues of quality and transformative learning in the design and development of environmental education and training programmes. Focus on science and environmental education in schools all the way up to post graduate programmes in universities; and on quality workplace-based training. Substantive resources are spent on education and training programmes, but the quality is generally poor which in turn affects the outcomes of learning. Working with new environmental knowledge and developing new approaches to learning requires attention.
• Green economy plans should be accompanied by well developed, skills sector system planning. This does not simply mean listing numbers of people needed. It requires careful analysis of what is to be done to build and develop the skills that are needed within a sustainable skills system supply trajectory. Skills development programme costs should be factored into green economy development plans. SETAs have the capacity and mandate to fund such skills development programmes, but they need to be pro-actively engaged as environmental training issues are new to many of the SETAs.
• Quantify the numbers of environmental employees and make them known through workplace skills plans; and national / sub-sector monitoring and evaluation systems. Without this data it is difficult to assess the size of the sector; and therefore how to conceptualise or lobby for skills development planning. The ESSP research identified (a conservative estimate; without water sector employees) that there are in the region of 230 000 people employed in environmental jobs in South Africa. This is approximately half the size of the mining sector; and yet there are no dedicated systems of skills planning and provisioning. If water sector employees; and new Green Economy job creation figures are to be added; the environmental employment figures in South Africa will match those of other substantive sectors.

In conclusion: A dedicated, national effort is needed to make the turn from a reactive, ad hoc system of skills development for the environmental sector, to a pro-active, futures oriented system. The issue needs all of our attention if we are to develop the capacity needed to face the future with confidence and competence.