South Africa: Geoff Jacobs

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Geoff Jacobs Of Safmarine

Geoff Jacobs, HR Executive at Safmarine talks to Jim Playfoot about finding the right employees and how education can help

As part of the global shipping giant Mersk, Safmarine works in more than 130 countries throughout the world. They employ over 1800 staff Safmariners providing personalised shipping solutions. They operate across the Southern African region in countries such as Namibia, Botswana & Swaziland. Geoff Jacobs works as a human resources executive in the South African Safmarine cluster. Having had a teaching background - he formally ran a school for kids from impoverished backgrounds with an accent on incorporating soft skills into education delivery - before moving into corporate development and, then, HR, he has a unique perspective on the current and future challenges facing the South African education system.

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Basic Problems

We begin by discussing the macro-educational situation in the country and consider the effectiveness of recent changes in the South African school system. Geoff is direct in his assessment: "Despite the amount of GDP invested, schools are still not working. Many school leavers are still innumerate and functionally illiterate." The problem, he feels, runs throughout the education system, with too much investment in bureaucracy and administration and not enough focus on the classroom. To compound this, the status of teaching as a profession remains shockingly low, with inadequate training and a mis-guided approach from the education department: "We need to invest in teachers, not check up on schools." He also acknowledges that there is little or no emphasis within the school system on developing skills that are specifically relevant to the workplace: "Primary and Secondary education in South Africa does not develop soft skills." This can only be addressed through a partnership between industry and education.

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Finding The Right Employees

In his role at Safmarine, Geoff is primarily concerned with the way in which the company can identify, recruit and develop talent. The company sets its sights high in terms of what it looks for in new recruits. He explains: "When we're looking for employees, we're looking for individuals with the right attitudes, competencies, knowledge, skills and personal attributes". All these elements are vital. While the company invests significantly in education and training, there are certain things, he believes, that are beyond the capabilities of the organisation. "Attitudes and behavioural qualities cannot be produced in the workplace." These are things that the individual needs to develop during their education. Beyond this, one of the key attributes he looks for in potential staff is an ability to embrace change. "Safmarine offers employees a career. But they have to be able to adapt to make the most of this."

The company has a clear approach to recruitment that specifically addresses the skills and attributes they look for when hiring new staff. They are particularly interested in identifying some of the more complex skills like problem solving and applied thinking, and have developed tests for this purpose. They also use 'predictive indicators' which measure abilities in relation to goal orientation, social interaction, speed of work and detail orientation (attention to detail). These measures have been very successful in accurately fulfilling the needs of the organisation. He expands: "We need to invest in the [specific] skills and attributes we want". They also have staff development programmes for emotional intelligence, interaction and team working. As a company, Safmarine have a highly developed approach to staff recruitment and personal development. However, they are still reliant on the raw materials that emerge from the education system.

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Improving The Raw Materials

We start talking about solutions. Although there has been significant movement in recent years within South Africa to address some of the issues around education and skills - the establishment of Sector Education Training Authorities (SETAs) being one - much more needs to be done. In some cases, it's a question of improving what's already there. Geoff pinpoints a lack of political leadership and a need to legislate for the involvement of employers in SETAs. "We need to formalise the involvement of the employer in the work of SETA; the employers should be the check and balance in terms of the work of their SETA." At present, he feels that despite there being some structures in place to support this, employers have no real voice and no teeth to monitor the effectiveness of the statutory bodies that, in part, were set up to represent them. He talks about the need to instigate conversations between the right people and about refocusing on delivery. And, of course, about the need for greater investment. He describes this predominantly as a "leadership issue".

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A Brighter Future

Despite some concerns over the current situation, Geoff sees some positive signs emerging. "Those addressing the issue are "beginning to scratch where it's itching: we are beginning to get more bang for our buck". He believes the changes in political leadership are moving in the right direction, with the gradual depoliticisation of education reform and the reduction in cronyism leading to more constructive appointments within the education ministry. All of which bodes well - or better - for the future of the system in South Africa. This is important not only for South Africa but also the whole continent. He describes the nation as the "bread-basket of Sub-Saharan Africa" supplying considerable human capital resources to neighbouring countries.

To create a training and education culture that thrives, he suggests the approach has to be mixed - he is a passionate believer in blended learning, mixing online with face to face. And he believes that everyone involved in education and training needs to focus more on practical, relevant skills so that money isn't wasted: "There needs to be more focus on functional skills in training, and visibility in where training costs are going." If employers and educators can keep moving in the right direction, South Africa can begin to build on the promising foundations already laid.

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