Denel Centre for Learning and Development: bridging the divide


South Africa’s future is dependent on its youth propelling it out of the “developing” category of countries into the “developed”; and it is education that must catalyse this growth, says Denel Centre for Learning and Development (DCLD) GM Eric Khoza.

Integral to this growth is also the building of globally competitive capabilities in knowledge-intensive industries, of which aerospace is a prime example.

The DCLD is currently one of the only tertiary institution offering commercial training for the collective aviation and engineering industries in SA and Africa.

By providing students with world-class expertise, it is creating a generation of future pilots, engineers and technicians.

Former students of the Denel owned facility, Malesela Rapotu and Richard Hlabangane, both attribute their current success in the aviation field to DCLD’s holistic approach to their further education.

Established in 1965 in response to a shortage of technical personnel in the aviation and engineering industries, DCLD provides accredited, cost effective and efficient training to students.

The centre focuses specifically on the development of skills, offering students a first year theoretical and practical course and subsequent assistance in acquiring practical experience.

This is gained by working in the industry for the following two years. Local and international students interested in the aviation industry apply to DCLD through sponsorships provided by corporate companies; bursaries and apprenticeships offered by other Denel subsidiaries; and in their own private capacities. 

DCLD’s initial approach to training took its students through to qualification level only, with students then having to search for their own apprenticeships to gain requisite practical experience in their relevant fields.

Realising the untenable situation that students found themselves in after their first year, Khoza began seeking long-term partnerships with Aircraft Maintenance Organisations (AMOs) in 2007.

This approach would ensure that students still had a dependable and consistent support base at the end of their first year of study.

Through partnerships that have been concluded with various AMOs, DCLD now transfers its students into internship progammes after they complete their first year.

The students remain in contact with their DCLD trainers and receive ongoing mentorship and support during their apprenticeships. In this way students can raise any issues of concern, and mentors can assist with these immediately, providing guidance and support.

This ongoing support base proved invaluable to Richard Hlabangane – one of DCLD’s class of 2003. A 26 year old from Crystal Park east of Johannesburg, Hlabangane always knew he was destined for the aviation industry. He matriculated from Willowmore High School in 2002 and subsequently applied to DCLD. He then completed a 35 week course in aviation basics at the centre before going on to do his N4 levels at another college. Hlabangane was fortunate enough to subsequently be accepted for a two-year apprentice programme at SA Express, after which he was given a permanent position as an aircraft technician. “DCLD was definitely the springboard that catapulted my career,” he explains. “The environment there ensures that all students obtain the best possible results. It’s not an experience one will forget easily.”

Hlabangane’s story differs significantly from that of Malesela Ropotu – one of the growing number of matriculants who are unable to study further as a result of financial constraints. This Daveyton raised young man (now 25 years old) wanted to be a sound engineer when he was a learner at Willowmore High School.

However, circumstances beyond his control made it unlikely that he would be able to study beyond matric. Rapotu was introduced to DCLD when a team of its representatives held a career guidance talk at his high school, sparking his interest in “air machines”. However, after matric (2002) Rapotu found himself unable to start living this newly found dream as his application for a Denel Aviation apprenticeship was initially rejected – or so he thought.

Unable to afford tertiary education, he spent the next year upgrading his matric results. It was also during that year that he received an acceptance letter from DCLD as part of Denel Aviation’s apprenticeship preparation programme for 2004. His apprenticeship comprised a year of intensive study of, among others, aircraft electronics, radio and instruments in DCLD’s aircraft avionics course – an opportunity he grabbed without a second thought.

“The ongoing mentorship and support of the DCLD offering greatly enhances a student’s chance of success,” explains Rapotu. “It also assists in keeping students motivated and encouraged – and ultimately focused on their long-term goals.” Rapotu currently works as an aircraft avionician at Denel’s aircraft and subsystem structures manufacturing subsidiary, Denel Saab Aerostructures. He was the only student offered a permanent position from his group of peers, and has ensured that his employers never doubt their decision to select him. “Luck definitely played a role in my selection, but I would also like to believe that my employers saw something else in me. My interest for aircraft was sparked from the day DCLD visited my school and experiencing it all hands-on is the most exhilarating feeling ever!”

If Hlabangane and Rapotu’s feedback is anything to go by, DCLD’s proactive and supportive approach to education is the differentiator that ensures the success of its students. DCLD’s collaborative approach provides an important model that – if replicated by other industry education institutions – will allow the aviation and aerospace industries to meet their skills requirements.

And, with skills critical to ensure the continuous innovation and development capabilities of this sector, DCLD’s past, present and future students are sure to yield significant benefits for technology in South Africa and, ultimately, for the economy at large.

Pic: Agusta A109LUH helicopters on a Denel assembly line, January 2008.