Challenges to Agency in Workplaces and Implications for VET: Mechatronics Artisans in the Automotive Sector in South Africa

  • Angelique WildschutEmail author
  • Glenda Kruss
Reference work entry


Vocational education and training (VET) is challenged to respond to a shifting work milieu, globally. In South Africa after apartheid, the current goal is to train more artisans to address growing inequality, high youth unemployment, critical shortages, and continued blockages to the production of quality intermediate-level skills, significant challenges within the national context. A particular concern is the need to train and retain more black and women artisans (Wildschut et al. 2015) to shift past patterns of discriminatory access and success. This makes recent critiques of a productivist approach to vocational education and training (VET) particularly significant in the South African context.

One response has been to draw on the capability approach of Sen (1992) and Nussbaum (2011) to argue for an approach to education and training that builds broad capabilities and human well-being, not only the skills immediately required for the workplace, and that this should be done in a way that is driven by social justice, equality, and human development concerns (see Part 2 of this volume). The capability approach rightfully shifts emphasis toward the role VET plays for individuals and communities. However, our research highlights that systemic, sectoral, firm, and occupational conditions shape the possibilities for individuals to truly enact capabilities within workplaces in significant ways. We cannot ignore the implications of these changing conditions if we aim to transform the development of VET skills and capabilities in a holistic manner.

The argument is built through reflecting on the case of intermediate-level skilling in the mechatronics function area in the automotive sector in South Africa, as an emerging economy. The growing use of technology in intermediate-level work requires different and higher-level knowledge, skills, and attributes than has been traditional for intermediate-level occupations. But boundaries in the workplace are maintained in such a way as to disadvantage the enactment of new capabilities especially for those from disadvantaged and poor backgrounds, women, and blacks. At the same time, the South African automotive sector is strongly governed by global production chains, which also tend to constrain the types of VET required from those employed in the sector.

The analysis raises a critical question for the global debate on the future of VET: with a multiplicity of factors that impact on both the development and enactment of intermediate-level skills and capabilities in workplaces, how can VET systems more effectively enable the development of holistic individual capabilities that support empowerment and agency?


Capabilities Functionings VET Intermediate skills Occupational boundaries Workplace Culture Artisans 


  1. Aggarwal A, Gaskov V (2013) Comparative analysis of National Skills Development Policies: a guide for policy makers. Decent work technical support team for Eastern and Southern Africa. ILO, PretoriaGoogle Scholar
  2. Agrawal T (2014) Skill development in India: an examination. J Educ Work 27(6):629–650CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Akoojee S, Gewer A, McGrath S (2005) South Africa: skills development as a tool for social and economic development. In: Akoojee S, Gewer A, McGrath S (eds) Vocational education and training in Southern Africa. HSRC Press, Cape TownGoogle Scholar
  4. Altenburg T, Schmitz H, Stamm A (2008) Breakthrough? China’s and India’s transition from production to innovation. World Dev 36(2):325–344CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Anderson (2008) Productivism, vocational and professional education, and the ecological question. Vocat Learn 1(2):105–129CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Anderson D (2009) Productivism and ecologism: changing dis/courses in TVET. In: Fien J, Maclean R, Park M-G (eds) Work, learning and sustainable development. Springer, DordrechtGoogle Scholar
  7. Awogbenle C, Iwuadmadi KC (2010) Youth unemployment: entrepreneurship development programme as an intervention mechanism. Afr J Bus Manag 4(6):831–835Google Scholar
  8. B&M Analysts (2013) HSRC automotive background report. HSRC, PretoriaGoogle Scholar
  9. Balwanz D, Ngcwangu S (2016) Seven problems with the “scarce skills” discourse in South Africa. S Afr J High Educ 30(2):31–52Google Scholar
  10. Barnes J (2000) Changing lanes: the political economy of the South African automotive value chain. Dev South Afr 17(3):401–415CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Barnes J (2013) Capital structure of the South African automotive industry: historical perspectives and development implications. Transformation 81:236–259CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bonnin D, Ruggunan S (2013) Towards a South African sociology of professions. S Afr Rev Sociol 44(2):1–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Brockmann M (2010) Identity and apprenticeship: the case of English motor vehicle maintenance apprentices. J Vocat Educ Train 62(1):63–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Brockmann M, Clarke L, Winch C (eds) (2011) Knowledge, skills and competence in the European labour market. Routledge, AbingdonGoogle Scholar
  15. Burger R, Steenekamp CL, Van Der Berg S, Zoch A (2015) The emergent middle class in contemporary South Africa: examining and comparing rival approaches. Dev South Afr 32(1):25–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Burke RJ, Ng E (2006) The changing nature of work and organizations: implications for human resource management. Hum Resour Manag Rev 16(2):86–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Burns E (2007) Positioning a post-professional approach to studying professions. N Z Sociol 22(1):69–98Google Scholar
  18. Buthelezi Z (2018) Lecturer experiences of TVET college challenges in the post-apartheid era: a case of unintended consequences of educational reform in South Africa. J Vocat Educ Train 70:364Google Scholar
  19. Christidis P, Hernandez H, Lievonen J (2002) Impact of technological and structural change on employment: prospective analysis 2020. Background report. Study for the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs of the European Parliament IPTS – ESTO. MarchGoogle Scholar
  20. Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) Republic of South Africa (SA) (2012) Skills Development Act No 97 of 1998. Government Gazette No 34666, Notice No 839. Listing of occupations as trades for which artisan qualifications are required. AugustGoogle Scholar
  21. Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) Republic of South Africa (SA) (2013) White paper for post-school education and training: building and expanded, effective and integrated post-school system. 20 Nov. Pretoria. ISBN: 978-1-77018-713-9Google Scholar
  22. Dias A, Periera M, Britto G (2012) Building capabilities through global innovation networks: case studies from the Brazilian automotive industry. Innov Dev 2(2):248–264CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Fien J, Maclean R, Park MG e (2008) Work, learning and sustainable development: opportunities and challenges, vol 8. Springer Science & Business Media, DordrechtGoogle Scholar
  24. Gamble J (2016) Work an qualifications futures for artisans and technicians. LMIP report 19. HSRC, Cape TownGoogle Scholar
  25. Garisch C (2015) Work and qualifications futures for artisans and technicians. Sector report: engineering (trade 671203 mechatronics technician). Unpublished research report. Labour Market Intelligence Partnership. Human Sciences Research CouncilGoogle Scholar
  26. Garisch C, Meyer T (2015) Mechatronics in the automotive sector in South Africa. Case study report for the Labour Market Intelligence Partnership (LMIP). LMIP, Cape TownGoogle Scholar
  27. Gastrow M, Kruss G (2012) Skills and the formation of global innovation networks: a balancing act. Innov Dev 2(2):303–323CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Gastrow M, Lorentzen J (2012) Multinational strategies, local human capital and global innovation networks in the automotive industry: the case of Germany and South Africa. Innov Dev 2:303–323CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Gelb S (1987) Making sense of the crisis. Transformation 5(1):32–50Google Scholar
  30. Giroux H (2012) The war against teachers., Dec 2. Retrieved from
  31. Greckhamer T (2011) Cross-cultural differences in compensation level and inequality across occupations: a set-theoretic analysis. Organ Stud 32(1):85–115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Griffiths D, Lambert P (2011) Dimensions and boundaries: comparative analysis of occupational structures using social network and social interaction distance analysis. Paper presented to the Spring meeting of the ISA Research Committee on Social Stratification and Mobility. University of Essex, 13–16 AprGoogle Scholar
  33. Kalleberg AL (2009) Rethinking the sociology of work, workers and the workplaces. Labour Ind 19(3):29–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Khan M, Kiani FA, Ashraf A, Iftikhar-ul-Hsunain M (2009) Skills, competitiveness, and productivity. Pak Dev Rev 48(4):473–486CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kraak A, Paterson A, Boka K (2016) Change management in TVET colleges: lessons learnt from the field of practice. African Minds, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  36. Kruss G, Gastrow M (2012) Global innovation networks, human capital and development. Innov Dev 2(2):205–208CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kuruvilla S, Chua R (2000) How do nations increase workforce skills? Factors influencing the success of the Singapore skills development system. Glob Bus Rev 1(1):11–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lall S (1992) Technological capabilities and industrialisation. World Dev 2(2):165–186CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Lopez-Fogues A (2016) A social justice alternative for framing post-compulsory education: a human development perspective of VET in times of economic dominance. J Vocat Educ Train 68(2):161–177CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Maclean R, Wilson DN (eds) (2009) International handbook of education for the changing world of work: bridging academic and vocational learning. Springer, DordrechtGoogle Scholar
  41. Manufacturing and Related Services SETA Sector Skills Plan (2011) 2010/11–2015/16Google Scholar
  42. Mbatha N, Wildschut A, Mcnwango B, Ngazimbi X, Twalo T (2015) Towards understanding the distinctive nature of artisan training. Implications for skills planning in South Africa. LMIP client report 2. JanuaryGoogle Scholar
  43. McGrath S (2004) Reviewing the development of the South African further education and training college sector ten years after the end of apartheid. J Vocat Educ Train 56(1):137–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. McGrath S (2007) Transnationals, globalisation and education and training: evidence from the South African automotive sector. J Vocat Educ Train 59(4):575–589CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. McGrath S (2012) Vocational education and training for development: a policy in need of a theory? Int J Educ Dev 32(5):623–631CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. McGrath S (2015) Understanding interactive capabilities for skills development in sectoral systems of innovation: a case study of the Tier 1 automotive component sector in the Eastern Cape. LMIP Case study reportGoogle Scholar
  47. McGrath S, Powell L (2016) Skills for sustainable development: transforming vocational education and training beyond 2015. Int J Educ Dev 50:12–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Muzio D, Kirkpatrick I (2011) Introduction: Professions and organisations – a conceptual framework. Curr Sociol 59(4):389–405CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Ngcwangu S (2015) The ideological underpinnings of World Bank TVET policy: implications of the influence of human capital theory on South African TVET policy. J Educ Chang 19(3):24–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Nübler I (2014) A theory of capabilities for productive transformation: learning to catch up. In: Salazar-Xirinachs J, Nübler I, Kozul-Wright R (eds) Transforming economies. International Labour Organisation, GenevaGoogle Scholar
  51. Nussbaum M (2011) Creating capabilities. The human development approach. The Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA/LondonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Nuwagaba A (2012) Toward addressing skills development and employment crisis in Uganda: the role of public private partnerships. East Afr Soc Sci Res Rev 28(1):91–116CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Powell L (2012) Reimagining the purpose of VET: expanding the capability to aspire in South African further education and training students. Int J Educ Dev 32(5):643–653CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Powell L, McGrath S (2014) Exploring the value of the capability approach for vocational education and training evaluation: reflections from South Africa. In: Education, learning, training: critical issues for development. International policy series no. 5. Graduate Institute Publications, Geneva: Brill – Nijhoff, Boston, pp 126–148Google Scholar
  55. Strangleman T (2012) Work identity in crisis? Rethinking the problem of attachment and loss at work. Retrieved from Accessed 26 Apr 2012
  56. Sturgeon T, Van Biesebroeck J, Gereffi G (2008) Value chains, networks and clusters: reframing the global automotive industry. J Econ Geogr 8(3):297–321CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Sturgeon T, Memedovic O, Gereffi G (2009) Globalisation of the automotive industry: main features and trends. Int J Technol Learn Innov Dev 2(1/2):7–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Tikly L (2012) Reconceptualising TVET and development: towards a capabilities and social justice approach. Background paper for the World report on TVET. UNESCO, ParisGoogle Scholar
  59. Unni J (2016) Skill gaps and employability: higher education in India. J Dev Policy Prac 1(1):18–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Vallas SP (2001) Symbolic boundaries and the new division of labor: engineers, workers and the restructuring of factory life. Res Soc Stratifi Mob 18:3–37Google Scholar
  61. Velde C (2009) Exploring opportunities for collaborative linkages in the vocational education and training (VET) sector. In: International perspectives on competence in the workplace. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 21–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Weeden KA (2002) Why do some occupations pay more than others? Social closure and earnings inequality in the United States. Am J Sociol 108(1):55–101CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Wildschut A, Meyer T, Akoojee S (2015) Changes to artisanal identity and status in South Africa: implications for policy. HSRC policy brief. FebGoogle Scholar
  64. Wildschut A, Meyer T (2016) The shifting boundaries of artisanal work and occupations. (Labour Market Intelligence Partnership (LMIP) and funded by Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), Nov)Google Scholar
  65. Wildschut A, Meyer T (2017) The boundaries of artisanal work and occupations in South Africa, and their relation to inequality. Labour Ind 27:113–130CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS)Cape TownSouth Africa
  2. 2.University of PretoriaPretoriaSouth Africa
  3. 3.Human Sciences Research CouncilCape TownSouth Africa

Section editors and affiliations

  • Margarita Pavlova
    • 1
  • Salim Akoojee
    • 2
    • 3
  1. 1.The Education University of Hong KongHong KongChina
  2. 2.University of the WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa
  3. 3.University of NottinghamNottinghamUK

Personalised recommendations