Johannesburg - The shrinking number of tradesmen in the auto repair industry and the fact that their current average age is 52 years could lead to foreign experts eventually having to be enticed to South Africa.
For that reason much is being done to attract young apprentices, said Len Whiteley, the national head of training for the Retail Motor Industry Organisation (RMI) organisation.
He said the average age of tradesmen in the motor industry is creeping closer to the retirement age of 65. It is currently somewhere between 48 and 52.
Meanwhile, fewer school-leavers have been entering the industry as apprentices.
Countrywide at the end of January there were some 4 100 registered apprentices, 3.5% of whom were women. There are about 5 500 registered motor dealers in the country. This means there is less than one apprentice for every registered motor dealer.
To place these figures in perspective, according to the Law Society of South Africa's Department of Legal Education and Development (LEAD) there were 6 991 first-year law students last year.
About 42% of the apprentices were white, while some 38% black.
An apprenticeship usually lasts four years. Most apprentices, some 31%, are second-years, and a quarter third-years. Around 920 or 22% of the apprentices are first-years. These number considerably more than the 488 first-year apprentices starting their apprenticeships in 2007, but less than half of the 1 855 entering the industry in 1991.
Whiteley said the motor industry was trying hard to boost the number of apprenticeships, but there were several factors threatening the industry's plans.
Large dealers employed most of the apprentices, and spent the most on training. Because of the skills shortage qualified tradesmen are in demand and staff are increasingly poached, often by smaller dealers who spend less or even nothing on training.
Whiteley said this practice, as well as the increasing number of tradesmen leaving the country to work – especially in the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand – meant that dealers were wary of spending too much money on apprenticeships.
The automotive industry is also a victim of public ignorance and misconceptions. Learners do not get enough exposure to technology. A passion for technology needs to be cultivated at an early age, said Whiteley.
He said the old "do-it-yourself culture" was on the decline as vehicles became more technologically advanced and fewer children these days had opportunities to work on a car with a parent.
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