For the Cape to thrive and increase its contribution to the economy, it needs to become a net attractor, and generator, of relevant skills, writes Chris Whelan.

Cape Town - There is no better time to return our attention to South Africa’s economic future than now – directly after our fifth democratic elections.

The globally acknowledged imperatives for successful regions comprise four ‘City Vitals’, namely connectedness, distinctiveness, innovation and, above all, talent. For the Cape to thrive and increase its contribution to the economy, it needs to become a net attractor, and generator, of relevant skills from which a growing business community can draw.

The lack of a full, appropriate and sustainable talent pool threatens social stability, economic prosperity and growth.

The jobs/skills challenge is not unique to South Africa. Two hundred million people around the world are unemployed, while nearly 60 percent of global chief executives cite a shortage of skilled labour as holding back enterprise growth and, by inference, economic development.

From the perspective of firms, the skills supplied must match demand. If not, the result is yet more unemployment, at least in the medium term, which is something the country can ill afford. In 2012, the national youth unemployment rate was 49.2 percent – a concerning indicator when compared to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s average of 17.1 percent.

As one of the key players on the demand side of the talent pipeline, and as the growth engine of the economy, business has a distinct role to play in the development of a robust, sustainable and skilled country. Let’s not forget that all the country’s development goals are, in fact, growth-dependent. With roughly 55 percent of government revenue coming from business taxes and profits, according to Investec’s Brian Kantor, the ability of the public sector to spend on infrastructure development – both social and economic – is curtailed by the country’s historically insufficient growth.

Building a skilled labour force presents challenges. We need to rapidly improve the quality of the education system, currently ranked 146th in the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness report; address labour inefficiencies for which we are placed 116th; relax the rigid employment termination practices for which we are ranked 147th, and more.

When the bigger picture seems formidable, however, it is often best to home in on specific areas. In this regard, it is reassuring to see the start and rise of numerous centres of educational excellence that business has either brought into being, or is underpinning with meaningful support.

In a particularly well-established initiative, Cape-based businessman Paul Harris, former chief executive of the FirstRand Group, plays an instrumental role as chairman of Penryn College. Penryn is a not-for-profit private school in a rural area of Mpumalanga that has achieved a 100 percent Grade 12 pass rate since its launch in the early 1990s.

Attached to Penryn College is Penreach, the largest teacher outreach programme in Africa, which uses the facilities and resources of the school to enhance the quality of teaching in the surrounding region. This initiative stems from the understanding that quality education depends largely on the capabilities of the headmasters, headmistresses and teachers who stand before the learners each day. As a result, Penryn staff are carefully selected and committed to making themselves available to teach and mentor their peers.

On any weekend, over a thousand teachers use the school’s facilities and receive the coaching needed to elevate the standard of education in their schools. The example of using school facilities beyond regular school hours for community benefit is one schools, public and private, could - and should - follow.

Closer to home, Harris is also involved in the UkuFUNda Virtual School and Mxit Reach initiatives, while his daughter, Nicola Harris, is a trustee of the Click Foundation. This cluster of projects is geared at harnessing technology across the various delivery platforms, including mobile, to help strengthen education. To this end, the foundation alone has 6 000 young learners in its programme, and has to date employed 35 facilitators.

Elsewhere in the region, the Symphonia Group runs a not-for-profit programme that matches business leaders with school principals in partnerships, with the aim of delivering insights into organisational, financial and resource management. In this way, business leaders contribute directly to strengthening school delivery capability, at the same time often learning more about themselves, simultaneously improving their business performance.

Other enterprising ventures span progressive internship programmes, peer-to-peer learning and a raft of innovative World Design Capital projects from which best practice could potentially be learnt for application in the education sector. While it is impossible to do justice to all the meaningful interventions out there, those highlighted here illustrate some of the ways in which companies are marshalling resources to help strengthen education.

One of the critical success factors, it seems, is to start small, think big and scale fast.

* Whelan is the chief executive of Accelerate Cape Town (ACT).

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers

Cape Times