Response to critique of DHET's Occupation in Demand List (Hoosen Rasool)

The Siphelo Ngcwangu and David Balwanz critique, How can we meet our skills needs if we don’t know what they are?, published in the Mail & Guardian (28 November 2014) and the Research Bulletin on Post-School Education & Training (No 3, March 2014) about the DHET’s List of Occupations in High Demand warrants a response to set the record straight.

Firstly, a Draft List of Occupations in Demand was gazetted by the Minister of Higher Education and Training for public comment in May 2014. Eight-seven organisations/individuals provided their inputs and feedback on the draft Gazette (which, incidentally, informed the revision of the draft list of occupations). It is unfortunate that the researchers from the Wits University Centre for Researching Education and Labour (REAL) and Centre for Education Rights and Transformation chose not to participate in the public comment process, but instead engaged on this issue via the media, after the deadline date. Quite plausibly, this raises the question – why did they elect not to participate in a public comment process, but chose the media route instead?

Secondly, much of their criticisms draw on the worn-out, debased narrative of the recently published book “Economy, Education and Society” edited by Salim Valley and Enver Motala whose “big gripe” with society is that there is a conspiracy by business to project its very own failings of creating employment on the doorstep of the education and training system under the disguise of a supply-side shortfall. This simplistic argument has failed to gain traction in virtually every part of the world, and is highly unlikely to do so now, because it offers no viable solutions to the intractable dilemmas of high unemployment, inequality and poverty afflicting our society. Clearly this narrative does not take us forward in any way whatsoever.

Thirdly, there is a tacit expectation by the researchers for the Occupations in High Demand List to indicate “how government departments would actually implement the list to align to their respective programmes”, but this is not the remit of the List.  The purpose of the List is simply to identify occupations in high demand in the economy using primary and secondary research. It is expected that labour market actors and government departments will utilise the List to address their own human resource needs according to their respective plans.

Fourthly, a lesser number of points were allocated to the National Development Plan (NDP) because the NDP does not talk directly to occupations (nor is it supposed to!), in a manner that, for example, the Joint Initiative on Priority Skills Acquisition (JIPSA) was mandated to do. Notwithstanding, a scorecard was devised for determining occupations in high demand in such a way that different weights can be assigned to sources used in the report. Researchers can therefore re-weight the scorecard based on their own priorities and determine whether they arrive at a fundamentally different set of conclusions.

Fifthly, the internationally recognised and accepted unit of measurement in national education and training systems world-wide for determining skills shortages and skills in demand are “occupations”. There is no better unit of measurement than “occupations”. Furthermore, the criticism that “occupations” exclude large sections of the population is fallacious, because occupations are generally understood to be a set of jobs or specialisations whose main tasks are characterised by such a high degree of similarity that they can be grouped together for the purposes of classification. Unemployed, unskilled and people working in the informal sector are also classified into occupations.

Sixthly, the contention that the Organising Framework of Occupations (OFO) “undervalues liberal arts education and higher education knowledge production, research activities and transdisciplinarity initiatives” is clearly a misunderstanding of what is the purpose of the OFO. The OFO is a skill-based coded classification system, which encompasses all occupations in the South African context sector-wide. The classification of occupations is based on a combination of skill level and skill specialisation which makes it easy to locate a specific occupation within the framework. As a standardised coding system for occupations it enables aggregation across economic sectors. The OFO makes no value judgment but functions much like a postal code system, albeit in an occupational context. The OFO is certainly not perfect, but it is a useful tool for the skills planning process.

p>Seventhly, another criticism levelled by the researchers is that the list is explicitly biased towards science, engineering and business occupations”. Unfortunately, the economy, or labour market for that matter, is not driven by the principles of “democracy” and “fair play”. It is driven by the forces of supply and demand. Admittedly, there is a strong bias towards “science, engineering and business occupations” because the market signals a high demand for these occupations relative to others.  The development of the List is part of a constellation of processes initiated by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) to shift the post-school education and training system from a supply-driven to a demand-driven mode of planning, with the intention of improving labour market outcomes across the urban-rural and formal-informal divide.

Of course, occupations such as those that prevail in the liberal arts and the social sector, although not identified as being in high demand, are important for the well-being of our society. This is precisely why the government has instituted an active labour market policy regime to correct imperfections in the market. The List supports the imperatives of the developmental state by minimising the inevitable risk of training for unemployment. The cold, hard reality is, whether we believe it or not, or like it or not, a science, engineering and businessgraduate is considerably more likely to secure employment and a higher wage premium than those in other disciplines.

Finally, after two decades of democracy, what is vitally needed from researchers and research organisations is to make the transition from a discourse of pure critique and rhetoric, to a discourse in which scholarship continues to be critical in character, but simultaneously postulates solutions to complex societal problems. This is what is precisely lacking the Ngcwangu and Balwanz discourse.

Prof Hoosen Rasool is an education and training consultant for FR Research Services which specialises in advising governments in Africa on expanding and strengthening their post-school education and training systems. He assisted the Department of Higher Education and Training with the compilation of the Occupations in High Demand List (2014)

 


For further information contact Prof Hoosen Rasool at hoosen@frresearch.co.za