Building an innovative and employable workforce

If South Africa is to thrive, says CHIETA CEO Yershen Pillay, it must create a skills-based curriculum


Where did you do your tertiary studies?

I did my undergraduate degree in Politics and Economics at the University of Cape Town. That was followed by a Postgraduate Diploma in Business Administration at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), University of Pretoria.

I then graduated with a Master of Business Administration (MBA) qualification from GIBS in 2021. I am currently studying towards my PhD in Digital Transformation at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

At the time, did it feel that your studies were helpful in terms of developing your broader understanding of the world and pursuing a career?

Absolutely. Studying across various institutions helped to broaden my worldview and develop a wide range of skills and interests. I gradually developed into a generalist with specialist skills in leadership and administration.

To be successful requires knowledge, skills and experience together with the right attitude and character. By continuing to learn and acquire new qualifications, I made education fashionable which assisted my career growth tremendously.

Should universities and TVET colleges be trying to strike a balance between education (in the broader sense) and training (for the workplace) or should there be a greater focus about what is offered at each type of institution?

There needs to be more of a focus on a skills-based curriculum. The result will be more employable graduates who have a penchant for solving problems and generating new ideas, innovation will flourish and the country will grow. Universities and TVET colleges are producing graduates who lack innovation skills, entrepreneurial thinking and core skills such as empathy, courage and communication.

There needs to be more of a focus on a skills-based curriculum

What did you learn in the course of your diploma and Master’s at GIBS?

My MBA journey at GIBS was more about the robust classroom discussions and the discussion-based learning than the tools and case studies offered. It was a journey of self-exploration and self-awareness. I learnt more about who I am as a human being and what I am capable of. I became more aware of my virtues, vices and “x-factor” skills. I learnt to be a knowledge seeker. In doing so, I realised my innate skills of curiosity, strategic communication and people development, all of which have served me well in my leadership roles as the Executive Chairperson of the NYDA, MD of a logistics firm, and now CEO of an education and training authority.

How has your experience in the private sector shaped you?

My experience in corporate South Africa was enabling more than debilitating. It was a totally different role to where I am now at CHIETA. I used to be in transport as an MD and not dealing much with SETAs. However, my next role was still in transport and logistics as a board member and director of Airports Company South Africa (ACSA). The jump from transport and logistics to education and training has been a seamless one.

Many of your positions have been in positions affecting youth. Is this a passion of yours?

I have always been passionate about people and service. Working in the public sector was a perfect fit. After my days as a student leader at UCT, I took up youth development for nine years, first as the Executive Chairperson of the National Youth Development Agency and then serving as the President of the Pan African Youth Union. Making a difference through public service is what I’ve always enjoyed. I have always been an advocate of youth development. I am acutely aware of the role that youth play in society. Our youth are our future. This is why I am so passionate about ensuring that youth are adequately skilled, trained and empowered for success.

A SAFCOL board member has commented on your ICT competence: have you specialised in ICT? How important is ICT in driving progress within an organisation?

Yes, absolutely! Over time, I have acquired essential skills in ICT and cybersecurity strategy. I am currently studying towards my PhD in digital transformation with a focus on people and technologies as this is a passion of mine. We live in an era of artificial intelligence (AI) and hyper digitalisation. The impact of technology on our daily lives is inevitable. We cannot afford to ignore the impact of technology. For this reason, I continue to play a role in the digital transformation of organisations. At ACSA, I am the Chairperson of the ICT committee where we are leading the digital transformation strategy of South Africa’s airports. At SAFCOL, we have introduced a number of automated and mechanised technologies for the digital transformation of forestry. At CHIETA, we are executing a digital transformation strategy to be a fully digitised SETA that offers digitised skills development and training services by 2025.

What do you find rewarding about serving on boards?

I have seized every opportunity as a learning opportunity to grow and develop in leadership and governance. Serving on boards in education, aviation and forestry has allowed me to develop a range of different perspectives and drive cross-sector collaboration which is a key factor of innovation.

I have had the privilege of acquiring a vast range of experience and innovation skills such as observational, discovery and networking skills. I now have an innovator’s DNA! Importantly, I have developed a relational intelligence (RQ) that has assisted me greatly in my current position as CEO of CHIETA.

How did CHIETA achieve a clean audit?

CHIETA received a clean audit outcome for the first time in five years. The key factor of success was our people. We have a great team of people at CHIETA. We are a people-centric organisation that focuses on high-impact, qualitative results.

We adopted a zero-tolerance approach to non-compliance and a “people first, everything else second” philosophy. We actively seek to empower, recognise and reward our people. In return, our people delivered the results, in this case, a first clean audit outcome after five years. This clean audit outcome signifies a SETA that works!

What are your broader goals for CHIETA?

To be a fully digitised, innovation-driven SETA that is not just about skills development, but about sustainable livelihoods and improving the quality of life. We want to support the end-to-end value chain of sustainable livelihoods. This means supporting more startups and SMMEs, so we must achieve our target of
2 000 SMMEs supported by the chemical SETA, and more than 200 co-operatives.

We have a goal of establishing nine SMART Skills Centres in every province by 2025. We are measuring grand goals such as livelihoods and the impact created through supporting more chemical startups, SMMEs, retrenched workers, gender-based violence and other social programmes, new hydrogen skills projects, VR-based training and the use of AI in education and training. We want to impact 100 000 livelihoods by 2025.

As an innovation leader in education, skills development and training we don’t want to train for the sake of training and contribute to employment. Our broader goal is to improve the quality of life by focusing on sustainable livelihoods.