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

  • Angelique WildschutEmail author
  • Glenda Kruss
Living 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 (Inequality reexamined. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992) and Nussbaum (Creating capabilities. The human development approach. The Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA/London, 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 Section 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 


Strengthening the outputs and outcomes from vocational education and training (VET) is increasingly recognized as critical to addressing inclusive economic and social development goals, globally (Unni 2016; Agrawal 2014; Aggarwal and Gaskov 2013; Nuwagaba 2012; Awogbenle and Iwuadmadi 2010; Khan et al. 2009; Kuruvilla and Chua 2000). There is a strong call that VET should play more than a narrow role in development, beyond the traditional vision of preparing young people with the right skills for the workplace.

Critics of the dominant productivist approach to VET argue that it is “ … too short term in its focus on immediate employability rather than lifelong processes” (McGrath 2012: 625). Critiques are emerging in a range of country contexts (Lopez-Fogues 2016; McGrath 2012; McGrath and Powell 2016; Ngcwangu 2015; Balwanz and Ngcwangu 2016), stressing that the purpose of VET is greater than contributing to economic growth and national competitiveness. Rather, VET should develop the agency and human capabilities of individuals and communities to participate actively in all spheres of life, in a holistic manner, and to promote social justice (McGrath 2012; Powell 2012; McGrath and Powell 2016; Tikly 2012; Velde 2009). A related strand of research aims to understand how VET can contribute to sustainable development (Fien et al. 2008; Anderson 2009). The concept of human capabilities, by definition, stresses agency, and the opportunity to select and choose (Nussbaum 2011), which these scholars argue, should inform the role and nature of VET in future.

The capability approach rightfully shifts emphasis toward the role VET can play in the human development of individuals and communities, and its tenets have been useful to shift the discourse around VET, by emphasizing the mutuality and inclusiveness of capabilities across multiple domains (Anderson 2003: 4), not only toward the labor market. In an emerging economy like South Africa, with complex patterns of inequality that are resistant to change, the development of individual human capabilities through VET is particularly significant. As noted by Anderson (2008), as a principal site of subjectivity formation, and one that has been historically constituted by productivism, VET must reflect critically upon its own origins, assumptions, and purposes to adapt to its changing landscape and prepare its learners for alternative, post-productivist futures. Giroux (2012) likewise asserted the need for paradigms that oppose and supersede the “productivist” frameworks within which VET is currently located and has traditionally been evaluated. Productivist frameworks have tended to “underplay the wider economic and labour market contexts in which providers operate, focusing on the ‘failings’ of learners and colleges rather than those of employers and government … also displaying a methodological deafness to the voices of learners, lecturers and communities, instead assuming that employability was the only goal of VET” (Powell and McGrath 2014: 127).

However, we live in a world in which digital technological requirements are affecting and, sometimes, disrupting the nature of work dramatically. But while there is wide-scale acknowledgment that work change impacts on skills requirements (Christidis et al. 2002) actually, there is a very small and highly contested, empirical evidence base showing how the skills demanded from individuals in particular occupations are actually affected in the workplace (Burke and Ng 2006; Burns 2007).

Our research in the South African context highlights how systemic, sectoral, firm, and occupational conditions shape the possibilities for individuals to enact human capabilities within workplaces in significant ways. We cannot ignore the implications of these changing conditions if VET aims to develop skills and capabilities in a holistic manner.

In this chapter, the value of understanding the complex and intertwined socioeconomic challenges inherent to a specific work context is demonstrated, to frame further engagement on the ways in which VET can contribute. The heart of the paper draws on a fresh analysis of a set of case studies on intermediate-level skills development and work in a single industrial sector, the South African automotive sector. The case studies were conducted for different purposes and used diverse conceptual frameworks, all as part of the Labour Market Intelligence Partnership (LMIP) (McGrath 2015; Garisch 2015; Garisch and Meyer 2015; Wildschut and Meyer 2016). Full details of the design and methodology are available online, in each case study report (

The chapter begins by exploring South Africa’s position in the global automotive value chain and how mechatronics is seen as a critical function area toward maintaining and/or strengthening the current global position. Drawing on Lall (1992), we argue that developing technological capabilities at intermediate levels is as critical for technological upgrading and economic growth as it is at high-skills levels. This highlights the critical role of VET in building technological capabilities, particularly in work environments disrupted by intensive digitalization.

The section entitled Workplace conditions can constrain the contribution VET can make to capability building, moves to the firm level, to explore expectations for growth, and changes to the organization of work that result from growing automation of production. The section entitled VET needs to ensure that artisans have a wider range of capabilities to be effective in the current automotive workplace, outlines the challenges for VET in terms of the capability development of mechatronics artisans, in this context. The section entitled Workplace culture and discourse, adds another layer by illuminating how, despite changing expectations, the dynamics of workplace discourse, shaped by social inequalities, may constrain the enactment of individual capabilities at the intermediate level – with implications for the future role and nature of VET.

Drawing on these empirical insights, in the conclusion, we propose that VET needs to build individual technological and human capabilities in ways that allow for agency and navigation of the growing demands of the workplace, on a more equitable basis.

Mechatronics Artisans in Global and National Context

In this section, the specific nature and challenges of the automotive sector in South Africa is considered, and then, the new field of mechatronics is explained.

The national automotive industry has its origins in an industrialization strategy based on import substitution, heavy industry, and the extension of the color bar (Gelb 1987; Barnes 2000, 2013). Since 1995, government faced the challenge of reintegrating the industry into international producer-dominated chains, at the same time as having to respond to new dynamics of globalization and liberalization (McGrath 2007) and to extend access and participation in long racialized systems of education and training, occupations, and professions (Mbatha et al. 2015; Bonnin and Ruggunan 2013).

The Globally Disciplined Automotive Sector in South Africa

Figure 1 represents the current producer-driven automotive value chain diagrammatically: a collection of vehicle assemblers that operate with a string of upstream component manufacturers. The bulk of the value chain is currently made up of seven light vehicle assemblers (the Original Equipment Manufacturers or OEMs), with a primary production focus on passenger and light commercial vehicles. All OEMs are multinational corporations, and there is no domestic capacity for vehicle assembly. There are domestic component manufacturers alongside multinational firms, tiered according to their position: direct suppliers to OEMs are considered to be Tier 1s, while those that supply the Tier 1s are classified as Tier 2 or 3. Component manufacturers may also supply the automotive replacement market, either via an OEM’s dealership network or the independent aftermarket, which is dominated by large wholesale groups (Garisch 2015).
Fig. 1

Automotive value chain in South Africa. (Source: Garisch and Meyer (2015))

The automotive sector is significant to the economy as a whole, being a major employer, and vital to trade strategy, with over 50% of its output exported (B&M Analysts 2013: 8). The bulk of employment is production workers at the semiskilled level, but with growing automation, the small group of artisans and technicians at the intermediate level play an increasingly significant role (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2

Breakdown of employment by category for South Africa 2012. (Source: B&M Analysts 2013: 33 from original data from the South African Automotive Benchmarking Club and the Automotive Industry Export Council)

The strongly structured value chain is dominated by the small group of OEMs, who are able to organize production at a global level and to discipline their suppliers to produce what, where, and when they demand. This implies severe constraints on the ability of national industrial and skills policies, or innovation systems, to influence production decisions (Sturgeon et al. 2008, 2009). South African factories are also subject to a degree of competition for output quotas with existing and potential sites in other emerging economies. Their relative position is based on their own productivity and competitiveness, but also considerations about size of local and regional markets, and proximity to major international markets (Kruss and Gastrow 2012; Gastrow and Lorentzen 2012). OEMs increasingly have concentrated their supply, forcing many local South African Tier 1s into partnerships or mergers with global Tier 1s, in order to survive and avoid the very real risk of being excluded from the value chain entirely.

However, some emerging countries have been able to grow their technological capabilities to engage proactively in automotive innovation, rather than only local routinized production to the benefit of the multinational companies (Nübler 2014; Lall 1992). As Lall (1992: 166) explains, “simply to gain mastery of a new technology requires skills, effort and investment by the receiving firm, and the extent of mastery achieved is uncertain and necessarily varies by firm.” Such technological capabilities can secure local firms’ place in the global value chain, and can grow jobs in the local economy, to alleviate poverty and inequality (Altenburg et al. 2008; Dias et al. 2012). In an emerging economy like South Africa, therefore, a key developmental role is the extent to which the national VET system builds technological capabilities, to contribute to shifting an industrial sector’s current unfavorable position within the global production chain (Gastrow and Kruss 2012).

Mechatronics as a Field of Practice Critical to Sustaining the Automotive Sector’s Global Position

Mechatronics is at the forefront of global automotive design, manufacturing, and production processes and, hence, is one of the critical competences required to sustain and grow the position of the South African industry (MerSETA SSP 2011). It encompasses electrical, mechanical, control, and computer engineering skills across a range of traditionally distinct disciplines.

Engineering professionals, technicians, and artisans are the current mechatronics functionaries, although, until recently, they were trained as generalists. Figure 3 illustrates the collective mechatronic support team that characterizes most automotive firms today.
Fig. 3

Occupational groups in a collective mechatronic systems support team. (Source: Garisch and Meyer (2015)

A dedicated mechatronics qualification at the vocational skills level was recently instituted (see Table 1), along with recognition as an artisanal trade (DHET 2012). These effectively formalized opportunities to practice mechatronics skills at intermediate levels. Whereas artisans are the hands-on functionaries who keep the production line running, the tasks of technicians are essentially digital information processing-oriented, while engineers are responsible for overall systems development and management. The intermediate-level work required in the mechatronics field typically deals with maintenance and process modifications of the mechatronics systems that require automation and less directly with automated production itself.
Table 1

Vocational subjects in the curriculum for NC(V) mechatronics

NC(V) Mechatronics – vocational subjects

Level 2

Level 3

Level 4

Introduction to computers

Stored program systems

Stored program systems




Manual manufacturing

Machine manufacturing

Computer-integrated manufacturing

Mechatronics systems

Mechatronics systems

Mechatronics systems

Source: Garisch and Meyer 2015

Locally, public technical vocational education and training (TVET) colleges have become the focal point for the delivery of intermediate-level skills. Increased funding support is channeled into improving the capacity of the system to deliver on its mandate, both in terms of human resources and capital upgrading (DHET 2013). Fundamental challenges remain endemic across the system: often outdated training curricula, weak lecturer capacity, poor access to appropriate and up-to-date equipment, and machinery and training facilities that lag behind production and technological changes in the workplace (Akoojee et al. 2005; McGrath 2004; Kraak et al. 2016; Buthelezi 2018).

For an individual, in the context of very high unemployment rates, gaining a VET qualification to access employment may be highly significant. However, the challenge for the VET system is to build individual human capabilities so that those who complete a mechatronics qualification at intermediate level are also able to make work, occupational, and career choices in a rapidly changing workplace. In the automotive sector, mechatronics artisans with the technological skills and capabilities to contribute to productivity and process innovation in the workplace are also critical to sectoral attempts to retain and enhance the local industry’s position in the global production chain.

The following sections present evidence on changes and continuities in automotive workplaces to begin to identify the specific challenges for the VET system in South Africa and for the enactment of individual capabilities of mechatronics artisans.

Workplace Conditions Can Constrain the Contribution VET Can Make to Capability Building

This section draws on the empirical studies (McGrath 2015; Garisch 2015; Garisch and Meyer 2015), focusing on how changing conditions in the workplace may impact on what is required from VET, in relation to two dimensions. First, company trends, and how automotive firms articulate their skills needs, are considered. Second, the focus shifts to changes to the organization of work and how this creates specific intermediate skills needs.

Company Trends and Expectations

Firm expectations for growth and change shape their training climate and, also, their relationship with outside training providers. The research finds that firms highlight the dictates of the global economic climate as the single most important factor impacting on future business growth, followed by market volatility and shifts, with smaller, privately owned firms perceiving themselves as more vulnerable to these factors than larger firms. Technological advances in work organization, ecological and environmental footprints, and training opportunities for workforce development are not deemed significant factors likely to affect growth (Gamble 2016). It could be that factors such as improvements in production efficiency are perceived to be easier for firms to control, than external economic forces, given the strongly disciplined automotive production chain.

New, less permanent forms of work in specific function areas were found to be a significant and growing trend across all firms included in the study, but mostly in larger firms (Garisch 2015) (Table 2). For example, installation of new equipment is often done by external contractors, or maintenance support can be privatized. Employment trends such as subcontracting, outsourcing, decentralization, casualization of work, temporary contracts, and seasonal work fluctuations will not only affect employment flows. They have clear implications for firms’ motivation to invest in education and training of current staff and prospective entrants.
Table 2

Senior management views on trends in employment

Trends in employment

Engineering (mechatronics)

“Medium or large”


At present

In the future

At present

In the future
















Casualization of work





Temporary contracts





Source: Garisch (2015)

McGrath (2015), reflecting on Tier 1 firms’ perceptions of skills needs, found low labor force attrition, limited recruitment targeting very specific skills needs, and a tendency to upskill internally. These employment practices do not reflect a strategic vision for technological capability building. They can lead to low demand for new VET qualifications, which, in time, can become a constraint on technological capability building.

Organization of Mechatronics Work

Technological change did not impact strongly on firms’ expectations of future business growth and forms of employment, but it was perceived to impact extensively on the organization of work at the intermediate level. Specifically, changes arose from the impact of automation of production, equipment, and processes. The most salient features of these developments include computer-based technologies like human-machine interfaces (HMIs), programmable logic controllers (PLCs), and supervisory control and data scquisition (SCADA) systems and networks in relation to both the automatic control of electromechanical systems and capturing performance data of equipment and processes. As indicated by one respondent:

Basically, all your companies these days are going the automation route … everything has gone more software/hardware-based … interlinked or integrated. You’re getting a lot of PLC computer-based integration with your hardware components and stuff that you’re running on your production line …. (Technologies Trainer, OEM)

More functions are driven by ICT platforms, which are predicted to “become increasingly clever” in the future, and so the organization of work is viewed as having become more complex and sophisticated. There was broad agreement across all firms (with some differences by size of firm) that there has been an increase in the level and breadth of the knowledge and skill required from those in the technical and maintenance support functions. The spread of sophisticated automation has given rise to the need for increased maintenance and manufacturing engineering expertise to support automated production.

With a growing focus on data processing and analysis, and programming-related aspects in support of CIP, respondents agreed that it is important for artisans to have a grounded understanding of the workings of equipment. This ensures that a modified process, or even a whole system, is not made to run on false assumptions, with potentially disastrous consequences. Strong and up-to-date technological capabilities are of critical importance to assist artisan-level functionaries to adapt to the shift to systems-driven production processes. For example, they may have to contextualize a vibration problem on a machine within the context of the total system. Also, root-cause analysis involves extensive reliance on the digital analysis of equipment and process performance data using specialized statistical software tools. That is over and above routine process monitoring and fault detection by computerized means (such as error codes on the PLC or running a diagnostics program from a laptop or iPad).

In addition to the demand for more holistic system-level thinking capabilities and associated higher-order analytical capacity, the types of skills required from mechatronics artisans are also affected by the ways in which firms and departments organize mechatronics work and the level or extent of workplace automation across departments or plants. By all accounts and based on actual observation, these manifestations of automation are most pronounced in body and paint shops. Conversely, intermediate-level work at assembly plants was least affected, as work processes will always involve manual operations (Garisch and Meyer 2015). McGrath’s (2015) research similarly provides evidence of limited impact on some intermediate-level work, depending on firm size and different departments within an automotive firm. Some Tier 1 firms – particularly the more routinized metal-working elements of the domestic segment – asserted that the nature of technological change does not result in radical changes in artisanal skills requirements:

Motor companies will come to us to say we have a new requirement/specification. We then align with licensor who will give us the initial technology … The licensing agreement will tell you exactly where to get the machines from. … Once a polymer technologist knows theory, when you get a new recipe, he knows what to do … same old stuff; different colour. (Manager, Tier 1 firm)

The impact of such changes on workplace organization, and on the nature of work, holds profound implications for the knowledge, skills, and overall competence requirements for artisans to function effectively and successfully. They are now required to install, repair, service, and maintain production machinery and equipment controlled by computer-based or intelligent systems. The pace of change and extreme variation in the intermediate-level mechatronics skills requirements means that many firms opt for in-house training to ensure better alignment with their needs, rather than formal VET qualifications.

A strong trend observed in the automotive assembly companies where automation of production lines has taken root was the emergence of a distinctive mechatronics systems support function rendered by teams. Such teams generally included a troika of functionaries drawn from the electrical, mechanical, and automation fields that collectively underpin the disciplinary and skills base of mechatronics. The electrical and mechanical functionaries are typically traditional artisans who have been upskilled internally to meet the systems-level operational expertise required, usually through one of the two means: (1) self-driven or initiated on-job learning through curiosity or (2) attending specialist or advanced education through in-house training centers or at parent companies (Garisch and Meyer 2015).

At the same time, compliance with international technical standards and safety regulations, as well as in-house quality assurance systems, contributes toward the growing proceduralization of the local work of artisans and technicians. This includes the work of fault detection and problem-solving in the mechatronics field of practice. Overall, technical functionaries are compelled to adhere to formalized task descriptions. Only when such prescripts fail to deliver solutions can creative problem-solving be employed. Incidentally, it is often claimed that newer-generation artisans, conditioned by a culture of procedural compliance, often lack creative and analytical thinking capacity.

What are the implications of the competitive pressures automotive firms experience, and of the changes to the workplace that accompany automation, for the role and nature of VET? The next section demonstrates the wide range of capabilities VET needs to develop in mechatronics artisans.

VET Needs to Ensure that Artisans Have a Wider Range of Capabilities to be Effective in the Current Automotive Workplace

Firm respondents were unequivocal in their views that for artisans to be effective in such a changing work environment in the automotive sector, their capabilities – the knowledge, skills, and dispositional sets – need to be extended and more holistic, so that they can exercise choice and agency. As one respondent indicated:

the type of person or artisan that we need in that type of [automation] environment is a person that is multi-functional – whether it’s robotics or systems, mechanical, electrical or whatever …. (Engineer, OEM)

This section summarizes key changes to intermediate-level skills requirements in the workplace, identified through the empirical research on changes to firms’ expectations and the organization of work.

Artisans Must Employ Planning, Organizing, Management, and Administrative Skills

Work schedules are usually developed by maintenance planning engineers. While supervisors carry the responsibility for the allocation and coordination of tasks, it is ultimately up to the individual artisan to plan and organize his/her work. Of critical importance is the timeous identification and procurement of the parts required for maintenance jobs and, similarly, the reordering of parts for those replaced in breakdown situations. These practices stand in stark contrast to the old-school era, in which artisans simply arrived at the breakdown scene with their toolbox and walked away upon completion of the repair job, with all administration-related aspects being left to the supervisor and engineer for processing.

Management responsibilities have traditionally been considered a function performed only by professionals, but this has shifted dramatically in the last few decades. Artisans and technicians are increasingly called upon to perform and be responsible for certain managerial functions. For example, if a breakdown occurs and lasts for more than the allocated time (in some cases no more than 10–15 min), a report must be drafted and presented to the management. Artisans in automotive firms are increasingly responsible for procurement, planning, organizing, leading teams, and reporting to line management.

Greater administrative capabilities are also required from present-day artisans. Such “additional” responsibilities include compiling and presenting breakdown reports (in a team context) as well as handover reports upon completion of shifts. Older artisans reportedly found administrative tasks to be severely challenging. In this changing work environment, artisans are required to take greater ownership for preparation and post-task administrative responsibilities, which necessitates higher levels of organizational competence. The narrative of this artisan respondent illustrates the trend:

Production pressures sometimes force you to lose sense of how to organise and then you might get into trouble with your safety or injure yourself and whatever, but if you get your organisational skills right and you start planning, okay. (Artisan, OEM)

Another respondent highlighted the administrative shift required as work becomes more procedural: “whatever you are doing you have to do procedurally, for example … that has to be in the log … they must be able to trace every step back …” (Artisan, OEM).

Artisans Must Possess a High Level of Computer Literacy, Research Skills, and Dispositional Attributes

In the past, artisans mainly required basic levels of computer literacy, but increasingly, much higher levels are required for intermediate-level work:

I will plug in my laptop, do diagnostics – where is the problem? What needs to be replaced - things like that. I also make slight programme changes on PLCs, modify present operations, HMIs [human machine interface systems], setting your drives … and maintain those things …. (Artisan, OEM)

Another respondent concurred, “your basic electrician does not cut it anymore because he now also has to service your robot … he has to understand basic PLCs and programming because all of the jigs and fixtures are nowadays running off PLCs” (Engineer, OEM).

The increased expectation that artisans should be aware of, and be able to analyze, different technologies, and engage with abstract knowledge, is widely shared. An artisan respondent reflected on the new technological capabilities required “if, in my work, I read about something or somebody comes … with a new product or a new type of machine, I have to research it and evaluate it … can it work or can it not work and if it makes sense …” (Artisan, OEM). Other respondents confirmed the growing intellectual work “… they [artisans] need to be able to read a little bit more … it’s no longer about you working with your hands, it’s also more about reading papers about different technologies … to understand what is happening in those areas” (HR professional, Tier 1). Mechatronics technicians and trades workers are increasingly required to conduct research in relation to specialized information, with the main research areas being technology and programming updates, and properties of materials. As indicated by another HR professional, reflecting on the entry of mechatronics apprentices and artisans to their firm, “that’s why we changed our entry requirements and made it to a higher level just to make sure that we got people who … are analytical thinkers” (HR professional OEM).

In addition to high levels of research capacity and increased systems-level thinking capacities, a set of aptitudes and dispositional attributes were outlined as crucial for present-day artisans. The following attributes were the most highly rated for mechatronics artisans: passionate interest in mechanical equipment, such as robotic equipment and technologies and a natural curiosity to know how it all works; ability to think creatively, identify, and solve problems; being good at physics and mathematics; ability to integrate different knowledge types (e.g., conceptual vs situated knowledge) and across disciplines; willingness; and being self-driven, showing commitment and determination to work until the job is done and doing the best possible, even with small jobs (Garisch and Meyer 2015).

Across all automotive firms, there are increased instances of employees in different occupational groups required to work more closely with each other, in multidisciplinary teams. Teamwork is a notable trend in the world of work and an essential feature of plant work globally. Hence, increasing emphasis is placed on the importance of interpersonal communication skills and capabilities for artisans.

In sum, respondents highlight that to become a “true’” artisan in the automotive sector context, one must develop a comprehensive understanding of the overall production process, intimate knowledge of equipment and components, technologies, and interlinking systems, as well as the appropriate hand skills, dexterity, and experience to cope with and resolve major breakdowns as part of a team.

Workplace Culture and Discourse

Thus far, we have analyzed the changing knowledge, skills, and dispositional capabilities that artisans need to develop to be effective in the workplace. Two further intertwined dimensions have implications for the nature and role of VET in the South African context. That is the focus of this section, to demonstrate how workplace cultures and workplace discourses can constrain how mechatronics artisans are able to enact their capabilities.

In theory, the trend toward growing use of technology and the need for increased mechatronics teamwork should result in less hierarchical organizational structures and increased inter-occupational interaction. Another expectation is that occupational descriptions or titles will become less significant in setting the parameters of work and engagements within workplaces. There is an established literature (Burns 2007; Muzio and Kirkpatrick 2011) suggesting that organizations have become the major site and normative location of where the bulk of work takes place, so much so that it has led to the conflation of occupations and organizations in many instances. Equally convincing are those authors arguing for the decreasing relevance of occupational belonging to an individuals’ conception of self. Strangleman (2012) argues that work was once absolutely central to individuals and groups as a whole. People carved out meaning and identity and would be socialized into and through employment in an occupation. But this has now been largely eroded through shifts in the nature of work, such as new organizational systems, technological advancements, as well as rigid organizational cultures. Such perspectives have led to the argument that, much more so than was the case in the past, it is the organization that regulates the behavior of individual members, rather than the occupational or professional grouping that an individual belongs to.

In practice, the research found occupational description remained very important for delineating the scopes of artisanal work and its relation to other occupational scopes of work. This led to new mechatronics functionaries at the intermediate level facing resistance and contestation in their attempts to enact their skills and capabilities in the work setting.

To take the example of teamwork. Teamwork is increasingly deemed necessary for optimal plant functioning. It is expected to offer excellent situations for positive experiences, knowledge transfer between different occupational groups, and successful navigation of social boundaries. In more instances than not, actual mechatronics teamwork was characterized by the reassertion of boundaries between occupational groups, often sparked by conflict. Breakdowns become key sites of contestation, where it is common place for artisans, technicians, or engineers to indicate – “this is not my work.” The constraints on artisans enacting new capabilities were evident in this typical comment: “I’m a technician, I’m not going to take that motor out because that’s a job for an artisan” (Technician, Tier 1).

The strict protocols for problem escalation and the hierarchy involved in the day-to-day planning and scheduling of tasks appear to create spaces that strengthen boundaries, because tasks are determined in relation to the traditional responsibilities of artisans, technicians, or engineers. When conflict arose over the responsibility for work tasks such as fault-finding and fixing, lower status mechatronics tasks were always assigned to the artisans. It seems that closer working relationships illuminate potential overlap in tasks and responsibilities, which result in ongoing reaffirmation of status and position.

Furthermore, in great part due to the history of South Africa, the research shows that occupational boundaries are typically inscribed with social differences. Occupational boundaries between artisans, technicians, and engineers are maintained and contested in automotive workplaces, reflecting deep-rooted racial, gender, and language inequalities (Wildschut and Meyer 2016, 2017). For example, one respondent, referring to why there are not more women in mechatronics, asserted that “they’re probably not interested in manual labour” (Trainer, OEM). Another respondent highlighted how workplace perceptions are linked to race and age, “white artisans are inclined to stay at the plant and are loyal” (HR Professional, Tier 1).

These dynamics not only affect the enactment of capabilities but also the acquisition of VET skills, as central to artisanal training is a close mentoring and supervisory role played by a qualified artisan through an apprenticeship program. In this regard, for example, one respondent describes the language dynamic that might arise between an artisan and their apprentice:

we have a country full of diversity so sometimes things you say in Afrikaans … this guy maybe he is Xhosa he doesn’t understand Afrikaans … So communication is coming in the in between language, English … I’m fortunate I know a bit of Sotho and Tswana so I can communicate well. (MinCase)

Another respondent acknowledges the language dynamic and is aware that being able to speak “their language” puts him in a position of advantage. Brockmann’s research (2010, 66) similarly highlighted the centrality of the “social norms and values of occupations and pathways, governing ideas of how apprentices are expected to behave and what and how they are expected to learn.” Here the implication of historical language values impacts on African apprentices who do not speak the language well. Another respondent reflects on an incident where he asked the supervisor to explain a concept and the supervisor responded in Afrikaans, saying “los maar” (leave it!). The question was more related to the fact that the apprentice did not understand Afrikaans that well, rather than the inability to grasp the concept. Consequently, the whole interaction made the apprentice feel incompetent. This aligns with the work of Trice (1993, 26) who demonstrates that occupations establish “rigorous socialization experiences underscoring that the knowledge, skills and abilities are not easily learnt by just anyone and that they require a special learning experience and a special person to grasp them.”

In South Africa, a range of descriptors of social difference can intertwine to affect true access to artisanal training and employment. In this case, the extent to which individuals can become “true” mechatronics artisans is negatively affected by social difference.

VET therefore needs to ensure that the capabilities that matter to individuals are developed in such a way that they are empowered to enact them in the workplace. Artisans need to develop not only a wider set of technological and non-technological capabilities as discussed in the previous section. They require a set of human capabilities that can support increased agency to judge when and how to navigate occupational boundaries, so that they can play a proactive role in the workplace. In the case of mechatronics artisans, the capabilities required to navigate social boundaries within the workplace are becoming a critical skill that the VET system of the future needs to facilitate.


The study highlights a set of critical points as we think toward VET of the future. Firstly, it shows how sectors and firm contexts shape the types and scope of capabilities required by intermediate-level workers in significant ways. Secondly, in contrast to expectations, we find the notion of occupation remains important for describing intermediate-level work within this specific field of practice. Lastly, we find that social difference remains a fundamental basis upon which occupational description is discursively maintained, given the historical context of South Africa.

In the 2009 version of this volume, Maclean and Wilson (2009: lxxviii) stated that VET has had to respond to “changes in demand over time for skills and technologies used in workplaces, the globalisation of production, the increasing utilisation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and related matters.” We are of the view that our research contributes to add substance to understanding the way these dynamics are unfolding in emerging economies, illustrating the complex intersecting dynamics that impact on the required VET systems in future.

A range of “other” influences and important considerations were also outlined through our findings. Company strategies, workplace organization, workplace cultures, and occupational boundaries can nuance the requirements for skills development to such an extent that VET needs to change significantly. Developing capabilities such as critical thinking, agency, and empowerment is typically proposed to promote individual freedoms. Our research suggests that these “other” capabilities are equally critical for developing the artisans of the future: individuals who are able to enact the capabilities required to navigate complex workplaces and constantly changing technologies.

The evidence presented in this chapter emphasizes that systemic, sectoral, and workplace conditions cannot be ignored in moving toward VET that capacitates individuals to respond better to the changing world of work and their social reality. Thus, while HCT has been useful to shift emphasis to individuals and communities, the workplace remains a critical site of evaluation.

The evidence also underscores the social nature of work and the importance of understanding this, as we engage toward VET systems in the future (Vallas 2001). In this regard, research on the economic and social relations of work (Greckhamer 2011; Weeden 2002; Kalleberg 2009; Griffiths and Lambert 2011) could usefully contribute to further theoretical engagement around the role of VET in developing capabilities required for contemporary workplaces. The South African evidence shared in this chapter reminds us that we cannot ignore the role of class categories and discourses within workplaces. These dynamics have the potential to powerfully mediate economic and political benefits (Burger et al. 2015), and so if we want to transform inequalities and capacitate individuals and firms, VET has to understand and confront such issues.


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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 Council (HSRC)Cape 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

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