Skills development is an economic survival imperative


Student protests are no longer news. Where, once the media were agog over the drama that grew from the fecund symbolism of UCT’s “poo chuckers” which became the clarion call of Fees Must Fall, today, student protests seem to have become part of the background noise. This is a pity, because the latest student protests address a situation that is of vital concern in the most nuts-and-bolts way: the future of skills development.

Since January, students have shut down at least twenty technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges, citing a litany of grievances: unqualified lecturers, inadequate student funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), late payment of accommodation and transport, and the shockingly long time graduates have to wait for their certificates to be issued (as much as three years, in some cases).

As if these concerns weren’t enough, there is also the thorny issue of exactly what value the qualifications have. A certificate is worth little if it doesn’t lead to a job. Esayidi TVET SRC president, Thembelihle Shusha commented on News24 that they decided to join the shutdown as the issues also affect them on a local level and that some of the issues are beyond management level as many of them are with the department. After studying for 18 months, students seek in-service training, only to have their diploma applications declined upon completion: “Students are not given guidelines before going to find in-service training. Only when they have completed it are they told they are not carrying out the required duties that qualify them for a diploma.”

These distressing circumstances bring to the fore another noble but embattled institution: that of the Sector Education and Training Authority, or SETA. These sector-specific industry bodies, 21 in number, were created by the Minister of Labour in 2005 to develop and implement skills development plans in order to close the yawning skills gap prevalent in so many economic sectors in this country.

For example, skills development in the banking sector is dealt with by BANKSETA, while MICTSETA covers information technology, AGRISETA handles agriculture, and so on, across the public and private sectors. SETAs are accredited by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA).

Facilitating learnerships is an important part of the skills development drive. Defined as work-based learning programmes that lead to qualifications registered by the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), learnerships constitute a legally binding agreement between an employer, a learner and a Training Provider, clearly defining the tasks and duties of the respective parties. This arrangement is designed so that learners receive quality, hands-on training directly relevant to a particular occupation or field of work, from hairdressing to engineering.

In principle, it is an excellent idea, based on the best practices drawn from industrial nations around the world. Unfortunately, as indicated by the learnership issues adverted to above, something has clearly gone amiss.

What are the biggest stumbling blocks that have come between the SETAs and the fulfilment of their mandate?

According to Gizelle McIntyre, Director of the Institute for People Development, there are two primary challenges.

First, there appears to be a certain amount of role confusion. “This stems from the new NQF landscape that has formalised the quality councils,” says McIntyre. “The SETAs, in terms of their quality role, now work under the mandate of the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO) and this has caused a tremendous amount of misunderstandings and misinformation. Although the world of learning and development continues unabated, who quality audits are conducted by and when they are conducted has become a little grey. The SETAs have now been given extension again and life goes on …”

The second issue, as McIntyre sees it, has to do with talent retention. “The continuous staff turnover at most of the SETAs incurs enormous knowledge retention issues that, in turn, lead to many problems.”

For Robert Best, who, in his capacity as Director, represents Project Management South Africa (PMSA) at Services SETA, the primary concern is stakeholder participation.

“It is the intention of the SETAs to organise their services and consultations within each of their Chambers and to plan sector and skills development interventions to each of the sub-sectors and the informed needs of industry,” states Best.

“In light of this fact, the key to success is to ensure that there is broad participation from the relevant stakeholders in each sector to successfully implement the 3rd Phase of the National Skills Development Strategy (NSDS 111). SETAs need to address the National Scarce Skills identified by the Minister Higher Education of the top 100 occupations in demand, by offering skills development in these identified sectors. Critical Skill refers to the inability of workers to perform to the level of occupational competency required due to gaps in their skills profiles,” he adds.

What are the keys to driving effective change in terms of the skills development standards that SETAs help to develop?

For McIntyre, the answer is simple. “First and foremost, industry needs to get involved. If we, as the industries who need the skills, are not actively involved in the development and standardisation of these skills and qualifications, we have no right to complain about them.

“Second, companies have to make sure that their learning and development people are involved in the planning for training. Really, do we get the auditors to develop our IT systems? Skills development and the planning and implementation of it is as specialised as any other profession. The SETAs form part of this world and as a rule, when someone understands the SETA world, the SETA world understands you.

“Finally: stop using the SETA monies as a budget replacement for training and a quick fix for BBBEE points. Neither are good strategies for skills development,” he says.

Best takes a more panoptic view: “The effective change must come from having representative views in the interests of the sub-sectors that fall within the scope of the SETAs. Given that the growth of employment implies an increased demand for the supply of skills development, it is imperative that industry and academic stakeholders, alike, interact to ensure that the planning of skills development takes place.”

Echoing Shusha’s lament, Best continues: “Skills development needs to be coupled with practical internships within industry to ensure that the knowledge base learnt in training can be applied within the workplace. This is achieved through partnerships between public and private training providers addressing cross-sectorial and inter-sectoral needs.

“It is vital to encourage and actively support the integration of workplace training with theoretical learning.

“Equally, it is necessary to ensure that there are adequate and relevant Standards of Qualifications to meet industry needs. This calls for dialogue between the employee and the employer.”

Judging from these comments, it seems that, unless industry stakeholders become as actively involved in skills development as the protesting TVET college students, the skills development landscape will remain as flaccid and disjointed as before. It’s an economic survival imperative

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