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The debate on Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande’s actions against the Services Seta has diverted attention from a more important strategic issue, namely that his actions reflect a fundamental shift in the government’s approach to the skills development system.
Employers in the private sector should be concerned that the changes the government is introducing are likely to have a negative impact on training in the workplace. This is because the government’s shift in focus from sector skills needs to national priorities will not motivate the private sector to implement Seta-supported training programmes.
The steps taken against the Services Seta are not isolated, ad-hoc actions but reflect a change of direction in the broader skills development landscape which will significantly affect the training that was supported by the skills levy. Despite problems, the current levy system does serve as an important incentive to employers to train both their staff and unemployed people, especially those from previously disadvantaged communities.
Setas were initially established primarily to address the skills needs of specific sectors to improve productivity and to promote economic growth and competitiveness. The motivation was that this would have a knock-on effect in increasing employment and reducing poverty and inequality.
The rationale for the new National Skills Development Strategy (NSDS III) and statements from the minister clearly reflect the shift towards using the skills development system to achieve government objectives rather than sector and industry objectives.
It is understandable that the government wants to use the skills development system and the levy funds to address its developmental and transformation objectives. However, the training priorities of businesses are not the same as those of the government, although they do have a common interest in improving skills levels.
A great deal of training happens on the factory floor to improve the skills of both existing staff and new entrants into the job market. Employer involvement in training at workplace level is essential because this is where job-specific skills are best developed. So it is in the interest of the broader economy to have incentives for employers to support skills development.
But, because Seta targets and projects will now be driven by government priorities, it will be increasingly difficult for Setas to structure their programmes and grants to encourage employer support. The concern is that the shift in the government’s approach will reduce the interest of the private sector in Seta-driven skills development initiatives - even among those employers who have supported such programmes.
It is unrealistic to expect private sector employers to focus their training budgets on government priorities. The Setas will have to introduce meaningful incentives to employers to gain their support for NSDS III priorities. Without incentives that make sense from a business perspective, employers will not see much benefit in implementing Seta-supported programmes that are focused on government priorities. Partnerships with business will be essential.
The minister correctly observed that the Setas have spent more money on short courses than on programmes that lead to qualifications. The reason for this is that employers find short courses more relevant to their skills needs.
Employers need focused, job-relevant training that is flexible enough to meet immediate and rapidly changing needs. Surveys of employers clearly indicate that what they need to improve workplace competence—for both employees and new recruits - often falls outside the formally approved unit standards-based programme or qualifications registered on the National Qualifications Framework.
Nzimande plans to reverse this trend—but again this shift away from short courses will be detrimental to workplace-based training. The private sector is focused on workplace productivity and remaining in business in these tough economic times. It will not be easy to convince them to upgrade the qualification levels of their staff and, in addition, to train unemployed people beyond the company’s skills needs. Studying for qualifications requires more time away from work and many companies cannot afford the inevitable loss of productivity.
The minister’s insistence that public further education and training (FET) colleges should play a prominent role in the NSDS is a positive development because they are very well positioned to make a major contribution to skills training and addressing unemployment.
Unfortunately, many of the FET colleges have a poor track record in producing learners with the competencies required in the workplace, which has resulted in a lack of confidence in the institutions and the qualifications of their graduates.
Many colleges are still underperforming despite the massive infusion of funds through “recapitalisation” a few years ago. Throwing more money at the problem is unlikely to improve the situation. If colleges are to play a meaningful role in training for employment, they must work more closely with industry and their lecturers must have industry exposure and expertise in workplace practices. It is obvious that the best trainer of artisans is a qualified and experienced artisan.
Here again we need buy-in from employers to make their workplaces available for practical experience that will improve the employability of graduates. We also need to convince employers of the quality of the training provided by FET colleges and its relevance to their skills needs to encourage them to employ these graduates.
Any changes to the skills development system and the role of the Setas should consider the impact on private-sector support for training in their workplaces. Incentives for employers to invest in developing the skills of both their employees and unemployed persons must make business sense if they are to convince businesses to make this investment.
Suzanne Hattingh is a human resource development consultant. She is the co-author of Staff Development Guide for Employers and other publications on skills development and learnerships