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Skills for a green world

- Beth Amato

South Africa needs to reskill and upskill in the face of changing technology and shifting workplaces.

Skills and labour | Curiosity 15: #Energy ©

The Northern Cape is home to some of southern Africa’s largest renewable energy projects. One such project boasts 184 000 solar modules – enough to power about 162 000 homes. The land potential is being tapped but the surrounding communities remain mired in poverty and inequality.

“There is still high unemployment in the communities these renewable projects are situated in, no matter the growth and possibility that the green industry holds,” says Dr Presha Ramsarup, Director of the Centre for Researching Education and Labour (REAL) at Wits, whose research focuses on skills development for a sustainable and just world.

A just transition holds environmental sustainability, decent work, social inclusion, and poverty eradication as central tenets, but Ramsarup has found a disconnect between the quest to reduce carbon emissions and the urgency to create an equitable world.

“The skills and training needed to ensure this are unclear and contested in South Africa. Skills are often imported. Many short-term job opportunities created are not linked to meaningful social inclusion, job fulfilment, or lifelong learning. ‘Skills’ are always tagged on at the end rather than integrated with industrial and technical planning,” says Ramsarup.

‘Skills system’

The South African National Energy Association (SANEA) launched the South African Energy Skills Roadmap in January 2023. REAL partnered with SANEA to ensure that skills planning is central to climate adaptation and mitigation measures.

“Education and training have been reactive, leading with what the technology requires. This has created a fragmented landscape of interventions with no coherent planning for skills. We need to think about a ‘skills system’ that responds to communities’ real-life and changing concerns,” says Ramsarup, adding that the least is known about intermediate-level technical skills.

The renewables technologies training offered at technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges is often short course based and infrequently acknowledges the social context of these technologies. This ultimately provides an isolated solution when a multidimensional lens is required.

Data dearth

One reason for the fragmented response is the limited mechanisms to aggregate data. REAL’s Dr Nicola Jenkin analysed job ads as part of her contribution to the Roadmap.

“We are told that green energy will provide thousands of jobs, but we don’t have any information to confirm this. We have no clear idea how many people are employed in the renewable energy sector; we don’t know how many people are studying renewable energy,” says Jenkin.

Her ad analysis revealed that the energy sector requires highly technical and professional skills – likely linked to the influx of independent power producers and new technologies. But there doesn’t seem to be clear learning pathways for young people. Ramsarup says that even entry-level jobs require skills planning but data on reskilling or retraining needs is also limited. Jenkin notes that “once construction is complete, plants need operational skills. We would like to see how a construction worker can retrain to continue working in the field, for example.”

Multi-pronged approach

Dr Rod Crompton, Director of the African Energy Leadership Centre at Wits, says employment opportunities lie in the construction of renewable energy infrastructure. Currently the photovoltaic and battery sectors are booming to meet industrial and residential demand.

“Are educational institutions equipping people with the skills to do this? For conventional energy there are adequate learning programmes – although there is a shortage of particularly higher skilled artisans, like coded welders. New programmes are needed for the new interdisciplinary skills necessary for sector coupling.”

Aside from educational institutions stepping up, government needs to come on board, too. “We are seeing that industry, not government, is leading the change to a just transition,” says Jenkin.

The Departments of Mineral Resources and Energy, Basic Education, and Higher Education and Training need to be critical players.

Ramsarup concludes: “We need a multi-pronged approach. One of these prongs is reskilling and upskilling in the face of changing technology and shifting workplaces.”

  • Beth Amato is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation.
  • Read more in the 15th issue, themed: #Energy. We explore energy research into finding solutions for SA's energy crisis, illuminate energy needs of people with disabilities, address the energy and digital divide in an unequal society, and investigate the origins of fire control.