Education to enable industry development

Our industry in South Africa is constantly complaining that their workers have the wrong (or low) skills. Yet based on my own experience, many manufacturers prefer to appoint people from the street and then train them in-house on the job. This saves the business money and bargains the wage down, but at the same time makes it very difficult for the enterprise to respond to technological change. And when all your workers are at a low skills level, the technological advancement of the firm is almost completely dependent on the genius (!!) of the entrepreneur and the middle management. This is a risk for our industry as we do not embrace learn-by-doing enough as our competitors are doing because we do not trust the ability of our workforce.

The South African government itself acknowledge the importance of jobs intensive growth, especially aimed at lower skilled workers. I sometimes wonder if our government has given up on its education system, but then the large and continued investments in the overall education system seems to suggest otherwise. The education policy has a strong focus on vocational training, but learners still prefer to queue at our Universities despite the best attempts of the minister to highlight the value of Further Education Colleges and the recent investments into the vocational system in the country.

While the importance of making sure that our large numbers of low skilled workers do get some form of employment and further education, I wonder if we do not need a stronger dual focus on other forms of education and more skills intensive job creation.

Also, I wonder if we do not need to strengthen our ongoing education aimed at people currently employed. I know the Skills Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) are supposed to do this, but from the businesses that I work with it seems that this is a frustrating option – the skills levy is basically treated as a tax. The SETAs are also focused very much on basic skills and not on deep technological skills.

As long ago as 1987, Lawrence and Schultze criticized the European education system with its focus on apprenticeships that provides rather specific skills to rather standard and mature technologies. These technologies become obsolete very fast in times of rapid technological change. Furthermore, these skills do not help our enterprises to get ahead, they simply help the lower productivity part of the economy to catch up. Many other scholars have come to the some conclusions about Europe’s education system, advising them to follow the US model of equipping graduates with a more generic education that helps people to adapt to a more dynamic work and technological environment.

For in case you wondered, South Africa is undergoing huge technological change. With the energy problems this technology intensification is accelerating as enterprises try to upgrade to lower energy manufacturing technology.

To get ahead we need to invest more in creating middle and higher skills capacity, more or less what the learners are sensing. From an economic policy perspective, we need to support the enterprises that are in the more knowledge intensive industries. They still absorb lower skills workers, but at least in these enterprises their development paths are more varied and more secure. While at the job-intensive low skill industries these lower-skilled workers are vulnerable due to South Africa’s poor cost competitiveness on many basic manufactured goods. At the same time, we have to continue and even expand upgrading our workforce with vocational training, if not for any other reason than to give people a deeper sense of pride and dignity.


Lawrence, R., Schultze, C., 1987. Overview. In: Lawrence, R., Schultze, C.(Eds.), Barriers to European Growth: A Transatlantic View. The Brookings Institution, Washington, DC.

On market failures – perhaps you are too close

I am often involved in coaching and capacity building a different kinds of private sector development experts working in the developed and developing world. I am sometimes shocked when I realize that a practitioners or programme managers in the field involved in market development do not understand some of the basics of how markets work or how to address market failure. This is often made worse by the broad ideological blindness of the organizations that promote market development approaches. I state this based on my experience that when markets and its alternatives are properly explained to teams in organizations, many problems resolve themselves, largely because the way markets function and evolve are better understood. Don’t get me wrong, I love markets. They are amazing in that they can emerge almost anywhere but where we often seem to need them. But I am not blind to their limitations (like how unfairly they allocate gains), nor am I naive about what it takes to get market systems to work.

If you are trying to solve market failures by bringing suppliers and buyers of a particular good or service together you may be too close to the action to really make a difference in the medium to long term. Actually, you might be making it harder for markets to evolve, as trust that is weakened when something does not work as it should or as promised is not easily forgiven in the real world, making 2nd attempts very hard if not impossible. There are many reasons why I say this.

Firstly, a market failure is a symptom that something else is wrong. It could mean that knowledge about the product or service, or how or why it is used, is not available or costly. This could imply a deeper failure (knowledge related) that people do not understand the value, the impact or the modalities of the good or service, or how the good or service will affect them or what it might depend on. Or the supplier is not able to demonstrate or explain how a good or a service can be used, or that it will address a particular need.

Secondly, modern markets are tightly intertwined and interdependent on other markets and other forms of allocation beyond markets. For instance, the service for quality management advice needed by food producers is dependent on many other services, including management consulting, HR consulting and sufficient demand for companies that are for quality accredited. It may also depend on some technical expertise in the form of a service about the product itself and the regulations it must comply with. These different markets co-evolve and depend on each other. Furthermore, this quality management service is also shaped by domestic and international regulations, standards and norms. Lastly, this service may also be specific to a particular service or product type, so the potential impact of the service or particular good may be easier (or harder) to guess so that a potential buyers of the service can figure out if this money might be spent in a better way. Remember that spending money on the wrong thing (adverse selection) is also a market failure if this is caused by an inability to thoroughly evaluate the expected benefits of alternative choices.

Thirdly, most services and products traded in markets also depend on related or supporting networks and hierarchies. For instance, few market services or products used by businesses can be used if that business (a hierarchy) does not have a management capacity, or absorption capacity (to figure out how the product or service will impact the rest of the business) or a functional capacity (internal expertise to use the product/service optimally). Many first time users of products and service depends on social networks to evaluate alternatives.

Fourthly, many services are not provided only by the private sector, but also by public providers and not-for-profit organizations (and even via networks). The more generic the service, the more likely that it wont succeed as a private service (because business typically pays for additionality, generic solutions can often be developed in-house (via hierarchy). Many “business services” in developed countries are provided by private, public, not-for-profit (networks) or hybrid models. Multilateral development organizations often promote “commercial” business services even when in their own countries these services are also available as public or hybrid services. Often services are first provided by the public sector, and the complimented by the private sector as demand becomes more specialized. Or services are provided by the private sector, until the public sector realize that it is in fact a public good or service and that it should in fact be provided by the state. But often, in the long run, products and services provided in the public sector are also provided in the private sector, and vice versa. The order depends not only on the context, but also on the dependency and interdependency of the markets, as well as the costs and efficiency of the alternative means of provision.

Lastly, in the words of Mark Granovetter, markets are deeply embedded within a societal context. Markets are part of the society, it reveals what a society values, how much it trusts, and how much it values people keeping their promises. You cannot isolate a market from the context, optimize it and then insert it back in the society. The societal context provides the trust, the enforcement and even information flows that makes it possible for markets to work. Out of this society a whole range of institutions emerge, some in the form of organizations, others in the form of norms, habits and routines.

During training sessions on how markets work, practitioners are often surprised to find out that markets are only one way a society allocates goods. The other way is through networks (often not in exchange of currency), or through hierarchies (organizations that allocate resources internally). When markets are new, they often emerge first as networks. Over time a group of people that know each other socially formalize their transactions, and out of this markets emerge. This is why we often advise practitioners that when one form of allocation fails, the solution is often to stimulate the others. So when a market fails, first try networks or hierarchies.

We often use a case study to illustrate the point. A service provided in one country by the private sector as a commercial service, is provided in another country as a public service. In a third country, the service is provided by an association as a network good. Pairs of practitioners from different countries then assess the three cases and must make a recommendation. It is quite funny to see how people from different parts of the world disagree on what constitutes a commercial service (market transaction), what constitutes a public good (allocation via hierarchy) and when a network transaction is better.

On the point of designing markets. While it is true that some markets are designed, these designs are often carefully planned and regulated. Think of mobile phone spectrum or broadcasting rights. It is not so easy to design markets that needs many actors to cooperate and that depends on many other variables that you cannot control through regulations. Even if you could use regulations, you might have the problem of not being able to change something if you need to.

In the end, markets learn and adapt. Actors in markets experiment, they learn from each other, and they adapt. This takes time, much longer than the life of a development programme. Ask yourself, why does a market for cigarettes develop in a prison within hours, but a market for tomatoes can take years? We have to understand the preconditions and the evolution of markets much better if we want to assist the evolution of societies and their markets.

To solve market failures, we often have to move one level up to where societies turn broad and generic policies about the society into organizations or targeted interventions. This may still mean working with the people doing the transactions to learn from them, but often the solutions will lie in institutions, policies and eventually maybe in regulations and standards.

Linking: Rodrik on industrialisation

One of the leading scholars on the topic of industrialization is Prof Dani Rodrik. Two of his recent blogposts are relevant for the readers of my blog.

The most recent post by Prof Rodrik is titled “Premature deindustrialization in the developing world“. In this article he explains that industrialization is affecting the developing world more than the industrial world. This is a brilliant read. The full NBER paper that his blog post is based on can be found here.

Another recent post by Prof Rodrik is about services, manufacturing and new growth strategies. In a presentation that he mentions in this post he argues that many developing countries are focusing too much on unproductive small enterprises that face high costs, but that these same small enterprises often absorb low skilled labour. If I say anything more I will most likely mess up his argument, so take a look for yourself!

Looking back at my 2014 blog posts

Before I get blogging in 2015 I want to take a moment to reflect on the most commented on, quoted or disagreed on blog articles that I have written in the last year.

Actually, one of my most popular posts was written in August 2013. The article is called “Is aid systematically unsystemic“. On this particular article I received the most e-mailed comments and also the most links from other bloggers. Since the publication of this post I have received at least 30 emails with people saying that they agreed, disagreed, or wanted to just exchange experience.

During 2014 I had three blog posts that also generated many comments and e-mails. The theme of last years posts was all about industrial policy and especially taking a bottom up perspective of how to improve the industrial system.

The three posts that stood out in terms of comments and controversy were:

Industry development under conditions of complexity – In this post I argued that under conditions of complexity, the best approach is to diagnose through intervention, which means that there is no real separation between diagnosis and intervention. While many readers working with private sector development directly agreed with my statements, some experts working on advising national governments on industrial policy strongly disagreed with my statements that you do not gain insight into a complex system through analysis.

Another post that performed well on referalls and comments was posted in the middle of the year. In Industrial policy is different at local and national levels I argued that at the local level industrial policy (or locational policy) must be much more focused on the private sector as it performs now, and what can be done by various market and non-market organizations to support the development and expansion of the private sector. Again, many economists did not agree that at the local level the approach requires a more qualitative approach that involves actually speaking to business people and representatives of development organizations on a regular basis.

In a post that had little to do with industrial policy on the surface, but more about my ongoing research into complexity thinking, I discussed the implications of recognizing competing hypothesis as an indicator of complexity. The idea of Recognizing competing hypothesis as complex  had its origins in a training session conducted by Prof Dave Snowden on complexity and decision making under conditions of uncertainty. I did not mean a hypothesis like those formulated by a PhD student or researcher, rather a hypothesis as statement of a coherent argument that seems plausable. The link between this article and the rest of my posts is that in industrial policy there are often preferred or desired hypothesis or states that are being pursued, even if they are not explicitly formulated as hypotheses. I tried to argue that keeping our options open or even purposefully increasing the range of options is desirable.

Thank you to all my readers who have written comments and have e-mailed me about these posts. I understand that registering an account on WordPress may be a bit of a hassle, so I thank those that have gone through the trouble and that are always willing to comment and contribute. Thank you also for the tweets and reposts on other sites. Prof Tim Kastelle, my favorite guru on innovation deserves as special mention.

I will start writing again within the next few days. I just wanted to take a moment and reflect on the most influential past posts. Let me know which posts you printed, saved or forwarded, and which posts you think should be expanded upon!



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