SA sitting on a skills bomb, says Syspro CHRO Terence Moolman

Terence began his working life as a till operator at Woolworths.

“Whereas before, we had learnerships to prepare people for jobs, what is needed now are learnerships to prepare people for the learnerships that will equip people for jobs," says Syspro CHRO Terence Moolman who believes that the country is sitting on a skills ‘time bomb’ that could explode at any moment.

He says the country’s education system is producing graduates and matriculants that are barely employable in an environment where even those people with jobs do not have the skills that will be required in the future. Meanwhile, both the public and private sectors seem to lack urgency on matters of the fourth industrial revolution and its impact on business and society at large.

“It’s a frightening thought because I don’t see how we’re going to make any dent in the country’s unemployment problem given the set of circumstances that we face. And it's not South Africa that has this problem,” says Terence. “Research shows that global vacancies in the internet security space are expected to triple over the next five years so I don’t think companies like ours will simply be able to say they will look for those skills in the US or Europe.“

Terence believes that if society is going to have any chance of addressing the impending skills crisis, corporates are going to have to play a bigger role from an earlier stage in the education process. The current model of having graduate recruitment programmes may be helping those in higher education to make the transition into fulltime work opportunities, but it is a drop in the ocean when it comes to preparing for the future world of work.

“We need to shift from an education system that teaches people to regurgitate information to one that teaches them how to think.” he says.

As recruiters, Terence believes it’s no longer good enough to employ people based on their qualifications and the extent to which their CV matches a job description. Rather, organisations now need to ask themselves what those roles are going to entail five to 10 years from now and recruit based on that. 

"The problem is that nobody can reliably look that far into the future so even then you have to make a lot of assumptions."

Started at the tills in Woolies

Terence started his working in life operating the tills at Woolworths at the tender age of 15.  His foray into HR came when the resident data capture clerk suddenly stopped pitching up to work and he saw an opportunity to learn something new and volunteered to step in capturing wages. One week on the job turned into two then three and, before he knew it, what was supposed to be a temp job had become a new career path. He was later appointed as a trainee and promoted to HR manager then later became a regional HR manager before he eventually ran HR for the biggest region in the company.

“I was studying IT part-time, but after learning more about HR, I decided to change direction,” says Terence, adding that he has always been passionate about technology. “I started with the very basics of HR, understanding legal requirements, verifying the reliability of pay data and learning about patterns of behaviour. And, thinking about it now, it was a valuable experience because I was able to call on that experience when I started organisational design.”

It so turned out that Woolworths was the perfect environment for his growth as an HR professional because it is where he learned the importance of understanding operations. At ‘Woolies’, he was forced to understand the business. If the fridges weren’t working, for example, he had to unpack them himself to check what was wrong, regardless of the fact that he worked in HR.  Since then, he has always taken that approach, which he says has been crucial to his success.

Syspro vs. Smollan

On what has been the most transformative period of his career, Terence refers to his roles as the head of operations at retail solutions provider Smollan, where he was responsible for 27 000 people in South Africa, and his current role in which he is responsible for steering the global HR strategy at Syspro. These were two contrastingly different roles wherein he had to adjust from dealing with vast volumes of people and offering cost-effective solutions to having to add nuance and value to every individual's work experience.

“The focus shifts from one of volume and scale to quality of process. FMCG is labour intensive but the tech space is more about bringing ideas to life. Instead of onboarding 500 people a month, for example, here we have 10 new people month so you pay more attention to ensuring the best experience for each of those individuals,” he says.

Stop the obsession with Millennials

What has held Syspro in good stead is the culture, which accommodates all generations. The company recently conducted a culture assessment and what came from it was that employees appreciated the lack of hierarchy because, at Syspro, it is not easy to tell the difference between management and other employees. It is something that drove Terence's realisation the HR profession might be a little too obsessed with Millennials. 

“Imagine a world where I can work with you irrespective of the generation you come from. That’s where the future is headed. We have employees in our business who are 82 years old that work closely and have good relationships with millennials and Gen-Zs,” says Terence.

“We need to move past the obsession with millennials but rather focus on creating an environment that enables employees to thrive, regardless of their generation.”