South Africa needs skills and needs them desperately. It’s a statement that doesn’t even require qualification. A combination of several factors – historical disadvantages, lacklustre public education and fast-moving change – is not only widening the skills gap but at the same time exponentially increasing the demand for skills.
But as they say, a crisis can also be an opportunity. This has been the experience at PackSolve, where we have placed skills as a strategic imperative. Of course, who hasn’t? That’s not enough. Yet while working on this problem, we found an interesting and very powerful dynamic.
To understand this potential, we need to alter our language a little. Instead of referring to skills, rather consider the problem to revolve around two important human drivers: opportunity and self-improvement. These can also help define the two main employee groups at our operations: blue-collar staff on the floors and white collar staff in the offices.
Blue collar workers want opportunities. Coming from humble and often struggling backgrounds, they are focused on improving their lot and expanding their prospects. The same can be said for white-collar workers, except they have at least escaped some of the harsh realities faced by the other workers. So they are more interested in self-improvement. One group wants to raise their chances for success while the other wants to improve the success they already enjoy.
One would think the obvious solution is to start with the group needing a leg up the most. But a contrary pattern developed. There had been growing calls among our office staff for more opportunities to learn soft skills or to expand their business knowledge. We could have sent them to typically expensive courses – and they would typically forget the information a few weeks later.
So instead we tapped online learning – LinkedIn Learning in this case. We maintain a number of prescribed courses identified through gap analysis, as well as give access to optional courses. Employees learn on their own time and volition, which turns out to be very effective.
This is creating a wave of change for our culture, which we want to be world-class. When you empower your employees to be self-starters, their attitudes change and are noticed by the rest of the workforce.
Capitalising on this, we also ramped up training and education for the floor staff. It’s is a more formal and technical pursuit, one that I will elaborate on in the future. But there are still significant overlaps, particularly around giving people the opportunities to improve, dovetailed with a single culture that is about humility, honesty and inclusivity. These aren’t words on a mission statement: they are attitudes reflected by PackSolve’s 570 employees.
As a company, we rank our priorities as employees, communities, customers, and then stakeholders. If we don’t help our employees realise opportunity and if they don’t see that reflected for the benefit of their communities, then little of what we do will be sustainable.
There is a lot more nuance to our approach, such as how PackSolve’s strategic pillars align with these concepts. But if anything should be taken from this, it’s that we can solve the skills challenge by looking at it from the employees’ perspectives: as opportunities for improvement. Modern learning tools, combined with the appropriate strategy and processes, can realise that. The business doesn’t only benefit from more capable employees but also gains a proactive culture that everyone can buy into.
Are skills in a crisis? Yes. But that really is an opportunity – providing you can create opportunities for your people to rise by their own will.