Windhoek: A pervasive perception - largely based on experience - is that Namibia is facing a critical shortage of particularly degreed professionals, and a notion that the situation would worsen over the next five years. This is according to a study commissioned by the Namibian Employers Federation (NEF) and done by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR).
The study was launched on Monday. More than 96 percent of companies across sectors said the country has a skills shortage; 51 percent thought the shortage is severe, and 45 percent thought the situation is 'very severe'.
As much as 70 percent of the companies surveyed said they have critical vacancies that require specialist skills they cannot fill. Skills deficits are mostly those of physicists, chemists and related professions, computing professions, architects, engineers, surveyors and cartographers, health professionals, jurists, physical and engineering science technicians, and department management.
IPPR researcher, Frederico Links, said about 500 companies were approached for the study, but that only 107, or 30 percent provided responses, giving a good representative perception of institutions in the country. More than 60 percent of the companies said they have strategic skills development plans in place, but more than 50 percent said in-house skills development initiatives are only partially effective.
Only 36 percent of the companies make bursaries available to outside parties to gain qualifications or required skills.
Links said the research does not cover a sector-by-sector skills audit, but Secretary-General of the NEF, Tim Parkhouse, intimated that his organisation would approach the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to fund exactly such a study by next year.
Acting Deputy Director with the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, Sikanda Manongwa, said while there is an abundance of human resources, these are not efficiently being utilised as indicated by the high unemployment rate of 51.2 percent and the fact that about 2.9 percent of those employed hold more than one job, and 6.4 percent are underemployed.
The 2006 Namibia Occupational Skills Assessment Survey (NOSAS) similarly identified a mismatch between usual or principal work or occupations and professions.
Links said the skills issue, and in particular the perceived inability of tertiary and vocational training institutions to produce graduates with skills of the right type and quality, presents a unique challenge in the quest to skill-up the Namibian workforce.
Compounding the problem, suggested the study, is that large companies over the years have been importing expatriate skills, while others have struggled to obtain work permits from the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration.
'We must fix the skills problem to fix the competitiveness of the economy,' said Tarah Shaanika of the Namibian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NCCI). He suggested that as many as possible young people should be given 'relevant' training, and that Namibia should 'import skills wherever we can find them'.
Hennie Fourie of the Namibian Manufacturers Association (NMA) added that skills shortage should be addressed by simplifying procedures for work permits for scarce and skilled staff, and to promote technical and business skills training in academic institutions and industry.
This, stressed Fourie, is in line with a 2005 Cabinet decision to expedite the processing of work permits to ensure that the implementation of customer-friendly processing industry committed to skills development.
He said at a meeting held on September 1 this year between the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration and the private sector, it was decided to institute a working committee representative of the ministry and the private sector to work out proposals to address this problem.
The new Foreign Direct Investment Act, which has not yet been approved or implemented, makes provision for an automatic number of work permits depending on the size of the investment.
Academic, André du Pisani, said the missing ingredient in understanding the skills deficit, is the brain drain experienced not by Namibia but the southern African region, and on the continent at large. 'We keep on losing well-trained people who are migrating to greener pastures for good,' said Du Pisani.
He further suggested that the mismatch of skills may be as a consequence of political considerations where people even in executive positions lack the requisite skills.
Chairperson of the NEF, Elize Fahl, said the skills shortage ought to be a priority for Namibia’s economic development. The rule of thumb is that one skilled person creates between eight and 15 jobs for unskilled workers.
Fahl said the study was done to guide the Immigration Selection Board of Home Affairs, the Employment Equity Commission and the Labour Advisory Council understudy’s exemption committee in their work.
Moreover, she said, tertiary educational facilities should take their cue from it when directing their curricula to ensure that their output is demand driven.
Du Pisani, however, cautioned against what he called a purely 'market-related education', arguing that education should also provide a critical reflective thinking, which he said is sorely lacking in Namibia.
* By Catherine Sasman