South Africa’s manufacturing sector, the fourth-largest in the country, has been under significant pressure for some time. It recorded a -10,8% drop year-on-year for August, with the fallout of the covid-19 pandemic, a lack of demand for goods, the unreliable power supply, infrastructure constraints, the high cost of doing business, and a lack of skilled workers cited as reasons for hampering growth.

The skills gap in the manufacturing sector is a universal problem, with America’s Manufacturing Institute announcing in January that nearly 70% of manufacturers in the USA are creating or expanding training programmes for their workforces, spending over R431 billion on training this year alone, as a means of combatting a shortage of available workers. The institute cited technological change as an enormous challenge, which necessitated a need to continually upskill workers.

A report published early in 2020 by The Wall Street Journal noted that new manufacturing jobs required more advanced skills, driving up the education level of factory workers who previously relied on getting by without a tertiary qualification. A major shift towards automation in production processes is occurring, with employees who previously worked manually now being required to operate increasingly digitised machines.

“The challenge for South African manufacturers is not only a lack of tech-savvy, multiskilled workers, but also the affordability of training methods, especially when businesses are facing unprecedented financial pressure,” says Mike Hanly, managing director of New Leaf Technologies, a Joburg-headquartered learning software and solutions company that works extensively in the manufacturing sector. “Our companies here are continually under pressure to find far more efficient, cost-friendly ways of keeping up with training challenges.”

Not only is eLearning less expensive than facilitator-led classroom-style teaching, platforms like Learning Management Systems (LMS), which are loaded with specially designed courseware – and have become the go-to solution for companies wanting to customise and house all their courseware and training programmes online – offer more for a lot of different scenarios or employer needs, helping employers and companies address a lot more training needs. “Downtime or time off from the production line comes with a massive price for manufacturers, especially in South Africa,” says Hanly, and this isn’t an issue with eLearning. “With employees being able to access an LMS via their smartphone or a laptop, learning can happen in their own time and at their own pace while still meeting course and timing objectives set by the employer.”

Courseware for an online LMS can be designed in such a manner that it’s visually very appealing and engaging, which translates into greater learning retention. “An LMS also allows for courseware consistency, irrespective of where a company’s production plants may be scattered around the country or the world. And the sheer nature of learning online not only fosters confidence in employees to improve their digital skills, but also allows them to develop softer skills like critical thinking, initiative and independence,” says Hanly.

With clients such as BMG, Africa’s largest distributor, manufacturer and service provider of engineering consumables and components; and AVI Limited, a major food manufacturing and distribution company, New Leaf Technologies has seen a record  80% increase in demand for eLearning products.

With compliance to South Africa’s safety, health, environment and quality (SHEQ) standards becoming stricter, and mandatory for local and international trade, manufacturers are also under pressure to continually update their training courseware to address these needs. Using an LMS enables the company to update courseware in this area quickly and efficiently, and the LMS reassigns courses for certifications to employees whose certifications have expired.

eLearning takes several forms, including self-study guided by a teaching facilitator; videos using various forms of engaging media like animation, filmed footage, stock photography and scripted voiceovers; web-based training via the internet, running online Learning Management Systems (LMS) loaded with specially designed courseware; blended eLearning, with instructor-led training combined with short e-courses; mobile learning, with content downloaded from the web or accessed via a company’s LMS; game-based learning as a means of creating a better level of engagement; and social learning, in which employees are encouraged to interact, collaborate and network over social platforms to discuss problems, queries and experiences.

According to an August report by Global Market Insights, a market research and strategy consulting firm, the eLearning market surpassed R3,2 trillion in 2019 and is expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 8% between 2020 and 2026. Cloud computing, artificial intelligence, growing internet penetration and better cellphone network connectivity, as well as the convenience of accessing learning content at the touch of a button on a cellphone or PC, are reasons behind this remarkable growth.

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