Additional Learning Urgently Required
Skills development presents a complex conundrum for the freight and logistics industry: employees at the upper echelons receive training of an admirable standard, while those who arguably need it most languish far behind.
In fairness, this has much to do with the nature of the industry. Liezel van Jaarsveld, owner of skills development firm The Chili Tree, notes that in many instances, individuals are able to find jobs without any prior training; they need work, and freight and logistics organisations need extra hands for a few hours or weeks. However, their reliability and diligence is what helps them acquire a permanent position. They become part of the company, without anyone having taken note that they require training in a specific area – often, something as basic and numeracy or literacy. And it’s when an employee reaches higher levels that it becomes a challenge.
The skills divide
“The most need for training is at the most basic level: drivers, pickers and forklift operators,” van Jaarsveld observes. “If you’re not able to read or do maths, you won’t be able to perform the calculations that could help you get ahead.”
Van Jaarsveld maintains that many people arrive in the workplace without a “solid literacy foundation” in English. Aside from what they might have been taught at school in language studies, they have not necessarily been exposed to English in conversation or via the media. When they are appointed in jobs, they are immediately expected to work and learn in English, which makes the training and learning experience extra difficult for them.
The gap extends beyond the front line level, argues Shirley Duma, human resources director at Barloworld Logistics. “Skills development has been cited as a key challenge by respondents in our annual supplychainforesight report for several years now. And, as technology develops, the immensity of the challenge is mounting,” she reports.
Duma explains that the problem lies in graduates’ unawareness of the various roles and responsibilities presented by logistics and supply chain management. “Various skills are required within logistics, ranging from accounting to data analysis and fleet management. It is concerning that industry-aligned curriculum and requisite experiential learning that young people need make it difficult for logistics businesses to find young people with the relevant skills and specialised knowledge demanded by this workplace.”
Meanwhile, Jan Huysamen, associate professor and subject head for logistics management at Stellenbosch University’s department of logistics, counters with the opinion that sound tertiary training is offered at no fewer than four universities, including (in addition to Stellenbosch), Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria. The calibre of the students is evident from the fact that employment offers are presented to every single one of the 40 candidates in Stellenbosch’s honours class.
But, he acknowledges, there is an area where graduates are indeed lacking: the quality of maths education in school is lamentable. “South Africa’s education ranking on the World Economic Forum (WEF) index places us among the most poorly performing nations in the world,” he says, “and we are particularly weak when it comes to basic maths and science. This is a major drawback for the logistics industry, as it is rooted in mathematics.”
Huysamen says that he has noticed students’ mathematical ability steadily declining over recent years; the upshot being that the industry lacks a pipeline of skilled logicians. Worse still, there are no quick fixes to be made here: even if a drastic intervention were to improve the education system, we would see the results only in 15 years’ time.
Huysamen insists that all is not doom and gloom, however. He points to the academic institutions and courses established by most large companies as assets which provide training of an excellent quality, especially in the area of operational skills, helping us to outperform Brazil, Russia, India and China (the other BRICS countries) nations in terms of logistics.
Ticking the boxes
Van Jaarsveld and Duma agree that one area that needs to be addressed is the lack of female representation in the industry. Van Jaarsveld believes that the dearth of female workers (except in traditional roles like human resources) may be attributed to the mind-set which accompanies a male dominated workforce; that is, the doubt that a woman manager would be able to effectively handle a team of 500 pickers. This is just one of many attitudes that requires urgent redress, she says. “Some companies still regard skills development as a tick box exercise,” she says, adding that in cases where labour brokers are involved, the issue becomes pushed even further down the agenda; dismissed into the “not our problem” category. “We constantly need to remind employers that this shouldn’t be the case. It affects all of us, and the only way for the industry to improve is by starting [at the lowest level].”