MOULDING qualified artisans is vital in South Africa's fight against poverty and unemployment, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande said on Wednesday.

"We cannot be more patriotic than the common commitment to produce artisans for our country," Mr Nzimande told a national artisan development conference in Midrand.

In May this year, recruitment company Adcorp reported a 19% increase in revenue for the financial year ended February due to increased demand for skilled artisans and technicians in its blue-collar flexible-staffing businesses.

"The development of qualified artisans to support the economy is a very high priority not just for our department, but also for government as a whole," Mr Nzimande said on Wednesday.

He said many strategic infrastructure projects in the country required a significant number of qualified and competent artisans in sectors such as manufacturing, construction, operations and maintenance.

The government has announced large capital infrastructure investments worth more than R1-trillion in the next decade - some estimates top R3,2-trillion over the next 20 years or so.

"Unless we accelerate the training of artisans, their numbers will fall short of the demands of the industry, and therefore adversely affect both production and job creation," the minister told the conference. "The impact will be felt in inadequate and continued skewed economic growth in our country, and government's reduced ability to provide basic and other services to our people."

Mr Nzimande said the idea that trades and other vocational programmes were for those unable to get into universities was "ingrained" in society. This had a detrimental effect on the ability to develop the skills required by the labour market.

"I'm told that in Johannesburg some plumbers earn more than doctors.. All of us have to be ambassadors for vocational training in our country and to make that fashionable, so that vocational education and training is not the second choice for people who have not been admitted to university," he said. "These are vital and necessary skills in our society."

The purpose of the conference, which ends on Thursday, is to set up a formal, national platform under the auspices of the Department of Higher Education and Training to review the state of artisan development in the country each year.

With Sapa