Skills 2.0: the face of the South African artisan in the digital revolution


Two industry thought leaders share their views on where skills are heading in the digital revolution and why the engineering fraternity and technical training providers must work together to ensure the sustainability of our skills economy.

Sean Jones, managing director of the Artisan Training Institute (ATI) recalls debates in the 1980s about whether artisans would still be in demand in the new millennium. “This was due to the changing approach at the time of industry replacing faulty machinery, components or equipment, instead of repairing it”.

The contrary was true. Instead of the basic engineering trades becoming obsolete, the South African economy entered levels of unprecedented growth and infrastructure development at the turn of the century, creating an insatiable need for artisans.

In 2019, the future of the artisan is at a new juncture – one that is shaped by the latest phenomenon in human history, the fourth industrial revolution. Like the 1980s, the question around the future of the artisan is resurfacing, but this time in the context of the age of automation.

“There is tremendous speculation around the integration of existing technologies that will drive the fourth industrial revolution. This relates to cloud computing, integration of automation and data, which naturally will improve efficiencies and allow for more flexible production systems. Such innovations will require a new kind of artisan, but one first has to do a critical stocktake of where we are in terms of skills development in South Africa, currently,” says Jones.

Chris Campbell, CEO of Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA) says to be ready for the future, we need to hit the pause button. Organisations need to work together to cement the foundation in basic electrical, mechanical and building skills, before leapfrogging artisans into automation.

“In South Africa, a fourth industrial revolution in the artisan field is aspirational at best. We need jobs. We sit in a country with a mix level of skills. People on the upper end of the artisan scale may have such aspirations, but the reality is that 80% to 90% of the population haven’t had the opportunity to learn the basics. We can’t stop the world from turning, but we need to temper how we embrace change and be mindful of the education deficit that exists in South Africa. To this end, we need to bring more people into a level of education where they have access to basic technical skills,” he says.

Both the Artisan Training Institute and CESA believe that collaboration between companies, the education sector and technical training providers is critical to ensure access to foundational technical skills. Campbell refers to a ‘family’ in the skills value chain, which requires engineers, technicians, technologists and artisans to talk to each other to ensure a readiness for new waves of technology.