Thursday 22 August 2013

The Skills Pipeline for Over R 3,6 trillion in Major Infrastructure Projects

Constructing the skills pipeline for over R 3,6 trillion in major infrastructure projects* is going to take a lot more than steel and concrete...

How this blog post is structured - click to enlarge

5 January 20115 update: visit the official SIPs Skills Portal here. Click the "How to Guide.pdf" at that top of it's landing page to find out how to join the site and connect with the Occupational Teams.

 1. Introduction

This post is divided into 8 separate headings as shown above.

Without the necessary skills to plan, construct, operate and maintain them, our Strategic Integrated Projects (SIPs) will be an expensive exercise in outsourcing work that could otherwise have grown our local skills base and helped to spread wealth more evenly across the economy.
"The massive investment in infrastructure must leave more than just power stations, rail lines, dams and roads. It must industrialise the country, generate skills and boost much needed job creation."
President Zuma, State of the Nation Address, 14 Feb 2012.

Realising the need for a strategic Human Resource Development (HRD) plan for the SIPs, the Dept Higher Education and Training set about in April 2012 methodically gathering the data and developing the methodology to achieve the biggest project-focused learning drive in our country's history.

Their objective was not only to generate skills for the SIPs, but also additional skills through the SIPs, using this massive work project as a catalyst for building South Africa's skills base.

The first public results of this work, the launch of the Occupational Teams, took place at the DBSA Vulindlela Academy in Midrand on 6 August 2013. The thinking behind the Occupational Teams shows an advanced level of understanding of labour market supply and demand dynamics, as well as a grasp of the importance of collaborating across the traditionally divided realms of theory and practice, for the design of learning.

There are 5 key concepts to understanding the Occupational Teams concept:

DHET's Occupational Teams - Key Concepts - click to enlarge

 1.1 The Strategic Integrated Projects (SIPs)

Everything starts and finishes with the SIPs. The measure of success of the Occupational Teams is the extent to which they can match the supply of skills with the specific kind of skills required, in the specific time-frames and geographical locations required. In time the Teams should also help lay the skills foundation for the exploitation and use of the infrastructure, which is built for broader economic and social development.

Much has been written on the SIPs and this will not be repeated here except to highlight the following facts:
  • The 18 SIPs are made up of a large number of individual infrastructure plans which have been integrated into the 18 projects clusters
  • The SIPs comprise:
    • 5 Geographically-focussed SIPs
    • 3 Spatial SIPs
    • 3 Energy SIPs
    • 3 Social Infrastructure SIPs
    • 2 Knowledge SIPs
    • 1 Regional Integration SIP
    • 1 Water and Sanitation SIP
If you want more detail on the SIPs then read or download this summary of the National Infrastructure Plan here (click the arrow in the black box, at the top right of the PDF below, to get download and printing options):


 1.2 SIPs Scarce Skills List

One of the first outputs of the SIPs Scarce Skills Committee was a scarce skills list based on the skills required to design and build each of the different kinds of infrastructure projects.

Working closely with the Presidential Infrastructure Co-ordinating Committee (PICC) they developed this list over almost a year, making use of the Organising Framework for Occupations (OFO) to help group and categorise related occupations in a systematic way:

SIP Scarce Skills List - click to enlarge - or right click and open in new window, then zoom to enlarge even more

This is the first version of the list. It will be updated frequently and made available to Occupational Team members.
  • Critically scarce skills indicate a shortage of 50 - 100% of the need
  • Significantly scarce indicates 20 - 50% shortage
  • Some scarcity indicates 20% or less shortage
Some immediate observations from the list can be made:
  • Scarce skills cross the full range of the NQF from level 1 to level 10
    • This makes it essential that there is collaboration across Quality Councils responsible for different levels of the NQF
  • Scarce skills are for occupations and professions that all involve varying but significant degrees of work experience as a prerequisite for practice
    • The Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO) has a specific focus on workplace and occupational learning related qualifications and will need to play a strategic role in facilitating qualification design and revision for the SIPs 

1.3 Pathways from Entry to Expertise

"Too often when talking of ‘meeting the demand’ for particular occupations, planners focus on the initial stage only i.e. entry into and completion of the foundation programme. This is certainly important, but it is not all that is required."
DHET Document: "Meeting the Demand for SIP Scarce Skills", August 2013, Page 6

The above DHET document is aware that the unique difficulty in the kind of HRD that is required for the SIPs is in ensuring that learners traverse the full pathway from entry to expertise – a pathway that requires an integration of at least three distinct forms of learning:
  1. Knowledge and theory
  2. Practical skills (off-the-job, simulated practice)
  3. Workplace experience (on-the-job, structured and mentored experience)
What makes this difficult to achieve is that there are traditionally at least four different role-players, with unique learning modalities for each of the three forms of learning identified above, who usually work in relative isolation from one another:
  1. Schools (including technical high schools)
  2. Post-school learning institutions (including universities, technical colleges, FET colleges, private providers and universities of technology) generally focus on knowledge and theory and some simulated practice
  3. Technical training centres (including training centres at State Owned Companies, private firms and local government) generally supply practical skills (off-the-job practice)
  4. Workplaces (both public and private)  are the only environment where genuine workplace experience can be gained
Developing competent or even expert occupational practitioners requires therefore a pathway from entry to expertise with the carefully calibrated input of several different role-players in the supply and demand system for learning.

The DHET Learning Pathway from Entrant to Expert - click to enlarge

At each of the seven stages above there is the potential for disjunctures which can weaken the final occupational effectiveness of the learner. For example:
  1. Between school and post-school
    1. Poor career guidance and a lack of information on which occupations are in demand can lead to poor and expensive career choices
    2. Some learners choose careers which require Grade 8 subject choices that they did not make
  2. Between post-school and theoretical learning
    1. Some theoretical learning institutions (e.g. universities) may be up to date with the advanced theory and research in a discipline, but lacking in current applied theory of that discipline to occupational and professional contexts
    2. Some learners complete this phase of learning without the understanding of how to apply the theory to real-world application
  3. Between theoretical learning and practical learning
    1. Some practical learning institutions (e.g. colleges) may lack modern equipment, or their lecturers may be out of date in terms of workplace advancements
    2. Some learners complete this phase of learning without having sufficient opportunity to gain the necessary simulated learning
  4. Between theory learning or practical learning - and workplace learning
    1. There is a shortage of workplaces meeting the necessary criteria, and equipped to handle the workplace learner requirements of learners effectively in their operations
    2. Sometimes the theoretical learning was designed in isolation from the learnership or internship programme for the workplace resulting in a poor workplace learning experience
  5. Between workplace learning and assessment
    1. Some workplaces will only expose learners to a small range of equipment and contexts compared to what is required and tested in their final assessment - learners then perform poorly
    2. Some workplaces can't afford to take experienced professionals out of the business cycle to mentor new entrants and this reduces the quality of the workplace learning experience
  6. Between assessment and employment
    1. If all the other previous steps have been of a high quality, the learner's chance of finding employment are better, otherwise top-up training with short courses, work readiness interventions, and work experience placements may be needed
  7. Between employment and expertise
    1. This is not automatic but requires sufficient opportunities during employment to apply all the previous learning and develop greater proficiency
    2. Racial discrimination in the workplace has been cited as a reason for some practitioners not being able to advance in expertise at this phase

1.4 Role-players

So how do you bring together a brilliant engineering academic, an engineering lecturer and his simulator, and an experienced practicing engineer to build the kind of learning experience that modern graduates require for the kind of projects our National Infrastructure Plan calls for?

Each of the above role-players may be separated by geography, busy at different times of the day, and facing demanding performance targets of their own.

DHET drew on two previous attempts at solving a similar problem in order to develop their Occupational Teams concept, where of role-players at each of the steps in the pathway to expertise are brought together and helped to communicate, plan and collaborate.

The old Technikons (now Universities of Technology) developed  Advisory Committees drawing on similar role-players to try to address each part of the workplace learning value chain. More recently the QCTO Task Team (under Department of Labour) faced exactly the same questions when they were developing their methodology during the period 2004 - 2007. The answer was formulated in the idea of communities of practice (a globally accepted notion used to support informal learning in the workplace) and a process driven approach to designing occupational qualifications that reduced the development time from years to approximately a month, with "time out of the workplace" for highly paid specialists down to a few days

Drawing on the experience of these approaches to solving the traditional challenges found in workplace learning, DHET developed the concept of Occupational Teams, where a representative of the role-players responsible for each step in the pathway to expertise joins an Occupational Team for the specific occupation or profession under development.

Looking again at the 7 step process from school to employment, the following role-players were identified:
  1. School - career guidance professionals and agencies
  2. Theory - academic lecturers at educational institutions
  3. Practical - facilitators and practical lecturers who demonstrate and support the acquisition of practical (off-the-job) skills
  4. Workplace - employers who recruit and develop the targeted skills and labour union representatives whose members practice the skills
  5. Assessment - people and bodies who assess the competence of aspiring practitioners who have completed all the other stages of learning - typically professional bodies, trade test centres and other quality assurance bodies
  6. Employment - recruitment practitioners and employment agencies
  7. Experience - proficient practitioners (experts) of an occupation or profession, they are usually involved as role-players in the previous steps

1.5 Team Members

While there are potentially seven different types of  role-players who could participate in an Occupational Team, the following four are absolutely essential for its effective functioning:
  1. Theory lecturers
  2. Practical lecturers
  3. Assessors and professional bodies
  4. Employers and unions

1.6 Intermediary bodies

DHET is entering into partnerships with six agencies to help them set up and establish the Occupational Teams. Each agency takes responsibility for one of the primary occupational clusters (OFO Major Groups) on the SIPs Scarce Skills List as shown below. The contact details for each Intermediary Body is provided towards the end of this article under "Contacts".

The six Intermediary Bodies - click to enlarge

2. Mandate

"Occupational Teams will stand at the interface between demand and supply"
DHET Document: "Meeting the Demand for SIP Scarce Skills", August 2013, page 9
DHET explains the mandate of Occupational Teams in terms of supply related responsibilities and demand related ones.

What Occupational Teams will do - click to enlarge -
or right click and open in new window, then zoom to enlarge even more

Supply side

Short term needs are those urgently required for the SIPs and could be addressed in the following ways:
  • Advising SIPs on the hiring of skilled people who are in the labour market but not necessarily "visible"
    • This involves collecting information on the current availability of skills around the country and encouraging qualified people to register on the Department of Labour's Employment Services online database
  • Offering RPL (Recognition of Prior Learning) assessments to identify people who are close to competent in the required occupation so that top-up training through short programmes can result in faster certification

Medium term needs have a slightly longer lead-time and could be addressed by offering structured workplace experience opportunities to learners who have already completed the theoretical and practical components of their qualification, for example diplomates requiring Work Integrated Learning
  • PIVOTAL Grants from SETAs can contribute to the funding of such programmes
  • Employers, government departments and even infrastructure projects under the SIPs could offer the necessary workplace experience
  • Under the Training Standard of the Construction Industry Development Board,  all infrastructure projects must set a Contract Skills  Development Goal (which is included in the contract price charged for the project) 
    • This goal can be achieved by providing quality assured structured workplace learning to apprentices, candidates for one of the professions, technicians or other occupational qualifications
    • The CIDB Training Standard is expected to become obligatory in November 2013, after it is gazetted, and all SIP projects will insert this requirement into their contract tenders
Long term needs enable the Occupational Teams to focus on the entire pathway to expertise. The aim will not only be to expand access to occupational programmes, but also to improve the throughput rate at institutions.

Demand side

Occupational Teams will have access, through the SIP Skills Portal (see below), to aggregated occupational information drawn from the infrastructure projects that will enable them to fore-cast the skills demands for all the infrastructure projects – and this will, in due course be across all geographical regions, and across the 20 year time-span of the SIPs. The same information will help them determine workplace experience opportunities on the infrastructure projects themselves.

Where no skills are available locally, the Occupational Teams will also be required to provide input to the Department of Home Affairs on work visa applications by employers.

3. Roles

The DHET document  "Meeting the Demand for SIP Scarce Skills" covers in detail the various roles and benefits available to the four essential role-players in an Occupational Team, summarised in the mind maps below...
  • Colleges and universities
Colleges & Universities - benefits and roles - click to enlarge

  • Technical training providers
Technical Training Centres  - benefits and roles - click to enlarge

  • Professional bodies, trade test centres and quality assurers
Professional bodies and quality assurers- benefits and roles - click to enlarge

  • Employers and unions
Employers and Unions benefits and roles - click to enlarge

4. Portal

5 January 2015 update: the portal URL is

A project as ambitious as the Occupational Teams would be almost unachievable without modern information technology, specifically team-based collaboration applications. The SIP Skills Portal makes use of Microsoft SharePoint (R) to connect Occupational Team members together across the geographical distances that separate them, and to enable sophisticated communication tools such as document revisions (seeing who modified a document last, and what changes they made), task queues, shared calendars etc.

The following image shows how Occupational Teams will report in to one consolidated platform to enable consolidated occupation information to be gathered and reports to be generated showing which occupations are required over time per location.

Occupational Teams reporting in to the IT platform from various geographical locations - click to enlarge

The next slide shows how Occupational Team members may be widely distributed across the country....

click to enlarge

... yet connected via the IT platform (this example showing the Mechanical Engineering Occupational Team and Network):

click to enlarge

5. Analysis

The launch of the Occupational Teams for the SIPs could be a very significant development in the building of a national awareness and consensus around occupational learning (which overlaps in many dimensions with workplace learning), its unique features, and how best to support occupational learning initiatives from a policy perspective. 

It is said that the best way to get two parties to communicate is to give them a job to do which  requires their co-operation to solve a problem.

At over R3,6 trillion, our SIPs and related infrastructure projects may very well be the biggest occupational learning problem we have ever faced, and it cannot be solved by any one role-player in the education delivery system, on their own. This could hopefully start a conversation between traditional supply-led educationalists and demand-led workplace learning practitioners to build an understanding of the unique dynamics of occupational learning across the very different delivery mechanisms of the NQF and the labour market.

Adrienne Bird heads up the special projects unit within DHET that is responsible for developing the HRD plan. She was also the first (Acting) CEO of the QCTO (Quality Council for Trades and Occupations) - the country's first cross-sectoral quality assurance body for occupational learning. Her experience at the QCTO may have nuanced her approach to the SIPs HRD plan by adding several valuable levels of understanding to the model DHET has developed. This may prove essential in the success of the SIPs, but even more valuable as a template for policy makers and industry to follow when tackling the more routine, every-day HRD requirements of the country in general.

The unique difficulty in the kind of HRD that is required for the SIPs is inherent in the nature of occupational learning - a unique mode of learning that is distinct from the traditional theoretical approach to learning common in schools and academic programmes at universities (sometimes called "chalk and talk"). Many of our country's education and training initiatives have been characterised by a theory-only approach to learning, which has missed out on the extensive range of holistic learning experiences both in the workplace and in off-site practice opportunities, which are required for genuine occupational competenceThis supply-led, rather than demand-led, approach may be a key contributor to our unemployed graduates syndrome.

A supply-led approach to education puts the knowledge and theory component of competence in a profession or occupation at the centre of the learning solution, at the expense of the equally important practical aspects, and workplace experience aspects. In extreme cases, learning programmes are supplied to employers in a one-way street relationship where the experts are the educationalists, instead of the occupational practitioners (people who actually practice the occupation or profession being studied).

A demand-led approach to education puts the labour market at the centre of the learning challenge, and uses the products and services created by the occupation as the basis for determining the (1) knowledge and theory, (2) practical and (3) work experience components of the learning experience. For more information see this article.

6. Deadlines

If you want to participate in Occupational Teams, fill in the response sheet below and submit by 30 August 2013. Other deadlines are shown below...

Timelines- click to enlarge

7. Response Sheet

The person you should send this Response Sheet to depends on which Occupational Group your occupation falls under (see "Contacts" below for the list). Click the arrow in the black box, at the top right of the PDF below, to get download and printing options.

8. Contacts

The list below shows the contact people for each of the Intermediary Bodies, which has overall responsibility for a cluster of occupations in the SIP Scarce Skills List. They will be your first point of contact until the Occupational Teams are established.


The primary documents relevant to the Occupational Teams are linked to above and consolidated here below:

Secondary documents you may find helpful:




* R 3,6 trillion in major infrastructure projects - this figure is based on government expenditure from the fiscus (R430bn) plus R400 bn drawn from the State-owned Enterprises, plus private sector infrastructure projects. More detail available at

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