Regardless of the level of technological automation that can be applied, people remain the most important element of almost every manufacturing process. In fact, while greater automation generally leads to a reduction in the quantity of personnel required, it also demands more advanced knowledge and skills from them. Nowhere does this apply more than in the ultra high-tech world of electronics manufacturing.
South Africa’s manufacturing sector faced stern challenges in 2014, chief among which was the protracted strike action instigated by Numsa around the year’s midway point. That was far from the only difficulty to dog electronics manufacturers during the period, with regulatory and governance shortcomings continuing to be thorns in their sides.
Also of concern is the country’s perpetually troubled education standards, particularly in the fields of science and technology. Ironically, these are precisely the subjects the government keeps saying it is most concerned about, and which it has highlighted as especially important to long-term economic growth.
Set against this backdrop, two of the industry’s important role players from both sides of the recruitment equation were invited to share their views on the state of the labour market, education and recruitment, as seen from their respective view points. This is what they had to say.
Kobus Vorster – Technology Station in Electronics
The Technology Station in Electronics (TSE), situated at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), was established at the behest of the Department of Science and Technology to support small, medium and micro enterprises (SMME) with advanced prototyping and low-volume runs.
Kobus Vorster, who manages TSE’s manufacturing, services and training, is rightly proud of its achievements, while not shying away from addressing its challenges. “In terms of things that have worked,” he says, “we have learned that the station is an extremely flexible platform that can cater for the needs of a variety of SMMEs. We also have access to other technology stations that can support SMMEs with chemical, enclosure and other forms of design work they might need. The majority of staff (except for two) are all TUT graduates and worked at the station as interns before becoming employed full-time. As such, they are capable of working on projects on their own or directly with clients.
“What is still a bit of a concern is the speed at which the University systems and policies are able to accommodate the needs that industry might place on the University. The systems are constrained by policies and red tape – all necessary for compliance, but in the real business environment it wouldn’t really be applicable. An example is the need for three estimates before an order can be placed. Sometimes a company might not be the cheapest supplier, but service is excellent and you would thus wish to use them. This is made difficult with inflexible policies.”
The Station has, for a number of years, assisted students in the electrical, electronic, mechatronics and ICT disciplines at Practical 1, Practical 2 and B.Tech level by taking them on as training interns. During its latest financial year it was instrumental in training 50 electronics and 60 mechatronics students at P1 and P2 levels, as well as seven B.Tech students on industry-related projects. It hosted 10 interns to assist the staff on the development of products for SMMEs. Two interns from France also came over to gain practical experience on industry projects, as part of an exchange programme which TSE has plans to expand further.
As to how successfully the students coming through the programme integrate into industry, Vorster explains that, while there is always reluctance on the part of companies to give work to students, processes are in place to manage the transition. “Students are never placed on critical project phases,” he clarifies, “and in the majority of cases they are monitored very closely by experienced staff. The objective is to give the student exposure to the design environment and to grow their involvement on projects as their experience level increases. It does take a number of years before they are able to work on their own with minimal intervention from a senior individual.
With technology developers being justifiably protective of their intellectual property (IP), Vorster assures that compliance with the IP Act and strict policies protect companies that deal with TSE. “Everyone who works at the TSE knows the importance of client confidentiality and they stay within these rules. No information regarding product design or manufacturing is shared with anyone except the client,” he says.
According to Vorster, feedback received from companies on TSE’s advisory board proves the programme’s worth, as they prefer these students for the skills they already possess upon entering the job market. Many of these companies simply do not have the time to train an individual for six months before they become useful.
Another promising sign of the Station’s influence is that the first inductees that came through the TSE system are now forging their own paths. Thanks in part to the Technology Innovation Agency’s Youth Technology Innovation Fund, some of these individuals who are now between the ages of 18 and 30, have started their own companies based on products that were developed at TSE.
Mike Goodyer – Microtronix Manufacturing
Now established as one of the leading electronics contract manufacturers in South Africa, Microtronix has survived, and even thrived, through major social and economic upheavals since its inception in 1993. The company services the mining, commercial, military, and vehicle/asset tracking markets, and now employs some 250 staff members operating 12 production lines at its facility in Johannesburg.
A hallmark of the company’s employment record is a very low staff turnover, with many employees that were at the company during its infancy still working there more than 20 years later. Mike Goodyer, founder and CEO, believes this stable personnel complement is hugely beneficial to Microtronix’s success. “I think it’s a great thing, as we have many years of experience on our factory floors and a high retained level of skills, especially amongst my senior staff,” he explains.
Goodyer singles out the efforts of the TSE for particular praise, saying that Microtronix has employed several people through the programme who were very well trained. “The training is good and gives students a good insight into our industry. It would be great if more universities embarked on this basic electronics training. I commend the TSE for its achievements so far,” he says.
“We are finding a lot of foreign workers from Zimbabwe and higher into Africa with very good technician skills who are able to fault-find and test with complete competence,” Goodyer comments on the question of the quantity and quality of the current crop of skilled technical workers. “I find that young black South Africans are very keen to learn and improve their life, and are willing to work hard to achieve their goals.”
However, this does not apply equally to all skill levels, he explains: “On the low end – those working on the factory floor and new people entering the job market – things are improving but skilled and highly educated people are becoming increasingly rare or are leaving the country. Very few youngsters want to work with their hands and prefer an easy life behind a computer screen or in a call centre, so it’s becoming harder to find highly skilled staff.”
As for some of the biggest problems plaguing his business, Goodyer singles out Numsa’s strike action for particular criticism as it served to damage not only Microtronix, but also its staff.
“This has been the single most destructive force in my business,” he laments. “It has led to a total breakdown of trust between management and staff, and ruined productivity for 2014. The pointless and destructive strike in July caused irreparable damage to our business and brought huge suffering on our staff.
“More than 30 valuable and treasured Microtronix employees lost their jobs directly due to the influence of Numsa. I am sure there are a few unscrupulous business owners who still treat their staff badly, but I suspect that 98% of them are fair with their staff and treat them with care and respect. A hostile, aggressive influence, such as Numsa, in a well-run business is therefore destructive and adds little value.”
On the subject of BEE legislation, Goodyer shares the frustration of so many South African business owners who are resolutely committed to the cause of empowering black people and other previously disadvantaged racial groups, but take issue with the process as it is being dictated by government.
“If the government wants jobs created then it should start by rewarding the people doing the work,” he elaborates. “If the government wants people trained then why not reward companies that train their staff, rather than on the basis of the colour of the company’s CEO? Of course there has to be a system of empowering people in South Africa that were disempowered for so long in the past, but surely never at the expense of those doing their best to empower people and provide jobs and an improved standard of life for people.
“The current systems and policies are all short-term solutions and are destructive. It’s sad to hear how many business owners in SA have such short-term views on making a quick buck and having an exit strategy. No one seems to be planning for the long-term future and I believe that government policies are to blame for these attitudes.”
Goodyer proposes that a more sensible BEE implementation would be one with greater focus on three key areas:
1. More of an emphasis on the number of qualifying employees and the creation of jobs, by assigning higher scores for these criteria on a company’s BEE scorecard.
2. Factors that are rewarded should include how well staff are being looked after; whether they are being paid correctly; training programmes that are in place; and medical aid scheme and pension fund membership.
3. Whether the people being employed are aligned with the country’s overall demographics.
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