S. Africa: plenty of jobs for skilled whites but not for unskilled blacks

If you know your way around an automobile engine, computer terminal, or electrical fuse box, and need a job, South Africa has one waiting. You must wait your turn, however. Government statisticians are expecting a hefty 40,000 new immigrants this year -- the highest for South Africa since the year of Soweto riots in 1976.

The lure is jobs, which oddly enough in a country where some economists put the true unemployment rate at some 12 percent, are going begging in the skilled labor sector.

One of the strongest sources of new immigrants is Great Britain, where job advertisements from South African firms are being snapped up by the ranks of that country's 3 million unemployed.

"As unpopular as South Africa is in a political sense, we got over 200 applicants from two advertisements run recently in a banking journal," notes an executive with a major South African bank.

The extent of the skilled labor shortage here is so serious that economists consider it a throttle to the national economy. South Africa chalked up an impressive 7.9 percent growth rate last year, fueled to a large extent by higher gold prices. But many private economists believe the economy will be hard pressed to exceed an average rate of real growth of 5 percent over the next five years, largely because of labor shortages.

The implications for the South African government are considerable. Each day the government seems to acknowledge new needs that will require huge expenditures in the future.Two prominent examples are the shortage of housing for urban blacks (about 160,000 units) and black educational requirements that will produce huge increases in government spending just to keep pace with the black population growth.

To meet these needs, the government would like all the economic expansion and attending tax revenues possible. "Our housing and educational needs alone could eat up our national budget," says a Johannesburg business executive.

Official government statistics show a relatively small 4.6 percent unemployment rate in South Africa. But economist Nico Czypionka of the Standard Bank Investment Corporation says that figure takes into account only South Africa's urban blacks. When blacks in the rural areas and the tribal homelands are taken into account, the number of unemployed swells to some 1.2 million.

The reason for the high unemployment among blacks is their lack of training and skills to fill the job needs of the highly developed sector of the South African economy.

"This is not a problem that can be solved in the short term. It begins with education," says Nic Wiehahn, a prominent labor specialist who has played a major role in revamping South African labor laws in recent years.

In the area of black education, the government has acknowledged the need for more skilled workers and has boosted expenditures considerably.Government spending on black education and training is to rise 52 percent in the current fiscal year.

Yet even this falls short of what is necessary, according to businessman D. A. Etheredge, chairman of the gold an uranium division of Anglo-American Corporation:

"While we are spending significantly more on black education, population increases [among blacks] have undercut any gains per capita expenditures," he says. Mr. Etheredge points out that a decade ago the spending on education for whites was about 10 times what it was for blacks on a per capita basis. The difference is of the same magnitude today, he says.

The South African economy is most short of skilled manpower in the technical fields. Engineers, electricians, engine mechanics, and computer operators and programmers are in particularly short supply.

In the engineering field, the shortage has meant that some 20 percent of the new jobs each year are filled by immigrants. And almost half the job vacancies for qualified engineers go unfilled in a typical year.

Labor shortages are felt in South Africa in tangible terms. A construction industry specialist says even if the money is available, the construction industry will not have sufficient manpower to build the estimated 3.5 million low-income housing units needed for South Africa over the next 20 years.

Even South Africa's highly successful synthetic fuels industry is constrained by a shortage of skilled workers. The government is now building its third Sasol plant for converting coal to liquid fuel, but an official says there are no plans for a fourth because "we wouldn't have enough people to run it."

Many analysts here believe the shortage of skilled workers will be solved in the years ahead. They see growing commitment by the government to spend more on black education and training. And where government efforts are inadequate, they see businesses spending more and more on their own training facilities -- a trend already clearly under way.

However, some see the potential for the problem to grow worse. "Black unemployment will increase in the future," predicts Moses Maubane, deputy general manager of the African Bank, Ltd., in Johannesburg.

Mr. Maubane does not discount the likeli erably more money into black education, or that the private sector will establish more facilities designed to train blacks for specific job needs.

Yet, at the same time he sees the more labor-intensive sectors of the economy increasingly modernizing and replacing people with machines, partly in response to the shortage of skilled labor.

This trend could accelerate in the future, Mr. Maubane reasons, because of the growing power of black labor unions. The government has recently allowed blacks to form registered trade unions, and Mr. Maubane believes the growing power of black unions may lead many employers to try to substitute technology for labor in the future.

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