How can business schools help address the skills gap?

We often talk about “the skills gap” in South Africa. We know that the lack of qualified people is holding back entire industries from development, competing internationally or delivering to the quality expected of it.

Many of the discussions around the skills gap are obvious, and you’ve almost certainly heard them recently. We need more engineers, we need more computer science graduates, we need more investment in FET colleges to produce better farmers, plumbers and plasterers. Some tell you the skills gap is caused by low quality basic education, others say the gap between graduates and the workplace is too large.

There’s a danger that these conversations teeter on the edge of being banal. The official list of “Occupations in High Demand” which is published by the Department of Higher Education and Training, and is used to develop the essential skills list for immigration purposes, is in essence a comprehensive list of all occupations in the world.

According to the last updates to those lists, we need to import skilled sheep shearers, pipe-fitters and car mechanics. Think about that for a moment. South Africa has an unemployment rate of 26.6%, but we still need to prioritise visas for the most widely practiced trades in the world.

The trouble is that we’ve known all this for years, and yet few would disagree that very little progress has been made in almost every area of shortage. We have programs, we have pronouncements, we have national development plans. We still have shortages in every possible industry, we still have vast amounts of people unemployed.

To borrow a phrase from the faculty of Singularity University, which visited Johannesburg recently, we also know that knowledge is an “abundant” resource. Everything that is taught in formal education is available on the internet, whether it’s a degree course from Harvard in data analytics or a YouTube video with instructions for changing a tyre.

And people are really good at learning new skills. We’re conditioned for it from birth. Human beings learn fast, and learn well.

So why are we still suffering skills shortage? Because having to learn a skill requires more than knowledge. You can’t become a plumber through an online learning platform any more than reading a book about body building will give you great abs. You need to combine learning with application and the opportunity for epiphany to truly learn a skill.

And this is where business schools step in.

All across Africa we have access to information about skills and we have people who could be benefiting from that access. What’s often missing are the leaders who can bring the two forces together.

In business, great thinkers like Peter Drucker and Carl Schein have helped us learn that culture isn’t part of a strategy to achieve success: it is the strategy for success. Innovation and creative disruption don’t happen because of good ideas, they happen because successful leaders cultivate a spaces where good ideas can be proposed, listened to, argued over and then given the resources that they need to thrive.

And if those ideas don’t thrive, we adopt the words of playwright Samuel Beckett and “Try again. Fail again. Fail Better”. Good culture means learning from our mistakes and from the ideas that don’t work out. We don’t stigmatise them.

Similarly, we don’t “do innovation” by putting 3D printers into the cafeteria or painting slogans on the wall. We nurture a culture of innovation and the hunger for success throughout our organisations. And we have to be proactive about it, constantly adjusting, refining and making sure the culture isn’t diluted.

We can’t create culture through workshops and lesson plans, culture is an inherently practical thing: we don’t think ourselves into new ways of acting, we act ourselves into new ways of thinking.

Don’t mistake this thinking for being wishy-washy, though. Concepts about good culture die as slogans on the wall when managers forget that developing culture means a commitment to learning and enabling employees to progressively set higher and higher standards for themselves and their peers, tolerant of failure but without forgiveness for low standards.

It’s better to work as part of a team who hate each other but is led by a good manager and can communicate clearly, than be in an environment where everyone is too polite to point out obvious mistakes or be critical in their thinking (although a happy middle ground is what we’d obviously like to encourage).

Often what we find, however, is that people have the wrong role models in the workplace. Bad managers legitimise of all the worst instincts in ourselves. They are aggressive, abusive and belittling of failure. They’re unable to share their vision, because they can’t understand why everyone doesn’t see things the way they do.

Business schools can’t fix the skills gap, except by training more managers, who are also on the list of Occupations in High Demand. What we can – and must – do is create leaders who believe in a culture of learning, that starts in their own teams and businesses but permeates into the world beyond.

People really are good at learning new skills. We need to train our students to be better teachers too.

This article was provided by Henley Business School Africa.

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