Last year Ernst and Young, one of the world’s leading accounting firms, ranked skills shortages as one of the top risks facing mining companies in 2013. As a Sierra Leonean mining company, Sierra Rutile is doubly challenged. We are grappling with a global – and a local skills shortage.
Sierra Leone’s skills deficit affects most of the Country’s employers. Thanks to a booming economy job opportunities are being created, and there are an estimated 800,000 young people actively seeking employment. Frustratingly there is a great mismatch between the two. Employers report plenty of job applicants, but few with the right skills or experience – unsurprising given our low adult literacy and secondary school participation rates.
With our Country’s economy predicted to grow by an impressive 10.2 percent in 2013, it is tempting to focus on our budding success and disregard our skills shortfall as a minor headache for employers. It is much more than that. As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development makes clear, skills are central to national, economic and individual progress: “Skills have become the global currency of 21st century economies. Without proper investment in skills, people languish on the margins of society, technological progress does not translate into economic growth, and countries can no longer compete in an increasingly knowledge-based global society.”
Our national skills challenge is certainly significant. Adult literacy is 40 percent, and only 9.5 percent of women, and 20 percent of men, achieve a secondary or higher level of education. We also have a large unskilled and jobless youth population; without skills their employment opportunities are limited, and without jobs they are a potential source of social and civil tension.
The Government is taking decisive action to improve basic and youth skills through the National Literacy Action Plan and National Youth Commission. Nevertheless, most employers will agree that we need faster change. To make that happen, the business world must step up to its share of the responsibility, particularly if we want training and development that matches our workplace needs.
Improving the skills of our employees, creating career opportunities for young people, investing in the skills we need for the future of our businesses, and working collectively to find solutions, are ways that all employers can contribute.
Many businesses already invest in training, and sharing information on what works and what doesn’t is an important first step.
At Sierra Rutile, equipping our staff with the skills we need to operate our business successfully is a corporate focus. We use experienced staff to provide on-the job training and coaching to their less-skilled colleagues. For more formal training, such as machine operator training, workshop skills or seamanship, we use professional training providers the great majority of these are Sierra Leonean, which enhances the knowledge and skills base of the country as a whole. There are, of course, some specialised programmes that are not available in Sierra Leone. For these, we either bring in trainers or send people out of the country.
We also direct a substantial proportion of our corporate social responsibility efforts towards increasing basic literacy and access to education among the local population in our area of operations, as well as developing much needed technical skills.
We have partnered with the Mogbwemo-based Ruby Rose Resource Centre, to support adult and child literacy. We also operate a programme of refurbishing and resourcing local primary and secondary schools, as well as offering scholarships to children in our local communities.
Technical skills training is delivered through the Jackson and Devon Anderson Technical College, which we sponsor and which offers courses in computing, electrical engineering and auto mechanics. The training offered relates directly to Sierra Rutile’s operational needs, but will also allow trainees to take advantage of the potential boom in jobs created by the off-shore oil and gas sector and other expanding industries.
Effective training strategies are not confined to large corporations. Mentoring and work placements, as well as apprenticeships and on-the-job training, are realistically within the capability of even small employers.
Professional and working people can also get involved by spending time in schools and colleges, talking to children and young people and providing them with careers advice and information so they understand their options, and recognise that background does not define success.
Sierra Leone stands on the brink of a Renaissance and we can look back on the achievements of the last few years with justifiable pride, but if we are going to realise our full potential we have to reconsider what we mean when we talk about the nation’s assets. We extol our mineral wealth, our beautiful beaches, our mountains, forests and rivers but what about our people? We can’t maximize our opportunities without them. On any list of Sierra Leone’s assets, their talent, creativity and resilience should take first place
Based on current trends, global management consulting firm McKinsey projects that the countries of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia (excluding India), could have a shortage of 31 million workers with a secondary education and vocational skills by 2020.
Sierra Leone however has a history of confounding expectations and by working collectively to build a workforce of skilled people, employers can help pave the path to prosperity. That should be our New Year’s resolution. Of course there remains the question of individual responsibility but that’s a debate for another time.
By John Sisay, CEO, Sierra Rutile