/ 25 February 2011

Skills plan puts Setas in hot seat

Skills Plan Puts Setas In Hot Seat

The change in tone and direction signalled by NSDSIII, the recently announced third phase of the National Skills Development Strategy, is encouraging. However, the concern expressed by some Setas about the time needed for considered planning and implementation should not be ignored.

The skills strategy for 2011 to 2016 is exactly that, an overarching policy. There is a welcome shift away from the technical processes in the government’s April 2010 consultative document.

This, with the move away from the specific targets that characterised the previous two strategies, provides greater flexibility in a complex and nuanced environment.

But that could also be a double-edged sword: each of the 20-odd Setas will have specific deliverables. The shift from a one-size-fits-all approach means that Setas must behave like adults, defining what they should be doing to serve their sectors and taking responsibility for developing and implementing ­meaningful solutions.

Statements from the chief executives of some Setas suggest that they also welcome this. NSDSIII’s emphasis on integration, cooperation and partnerships is encouraging, but the people who claim they are committed to making South Africa work will actually have to work together.

This is the first skills development strategy that articulates clearly with the broader economic strategy and policy framework. NSDSIII connects to the new economic growth path, the Industrial Policy Action Plan (Two) and the Human Resource Strategy for South Africa. This perhaps indicates that the talk of integration is not mere lip service. But a collaborative approach must be demonstrated in the implementation of the strategy.

NSDSIII is relatively silent about the specifics of the Quality Council on Trades and Occupations (QCTO). It does say that some of the Setas’ quality-assurance functions will “reduce as other institutions, such as the QCTO, are established”, implying that a switch will not merely be flipped from the Setas to the QCTO.

The Skills Development Amendment Act provides for transitional arrangements and the promulgation of regulations. Regulation must go through a public-participation process and, with the transitional arrangements, should support the shift into the new system in a considered way.

Role-players should engage constructively with the proposed changes, participating in the public processes and factoring them into their planning by keeping up to date.

The previous strategy included an outcome regarding quality and the relevance of provision, but NSDSIII takes this further, as is evident in its stated determination to measure impact. Impact is not just a numbers game, it is about influence and change in companies, in lives and on productivity. Hopefully, reporting on the successful completion of learning programmes, apprenticeships and learnerships and placements in employment will improve. The public must be told how training enables individuals to contribute to the economy and support their families.
Quality is paramount and it will require application and rigour from all role-players, from the learner and the trainers to the apex of the system. It is understood that a key driver for the QCTO development is the improvement of the quality of training. Are we up to that challenge?

Relevant training is about the needs of the economy and the labour market. Training provision and skills development must be demand-led. This approach can only benefit all stakeholders, employed and unemployed alike.

NSDSIII’s conception of private providers, including business, industry and state-owned enterprises, acknowledges that a significant amount of learning does take place in the workplace and must continue to do so.

NSDSIII has eight goals, each with its own outcomes and associated outputs. The first concerns the need for a credible institutional mechanism for skills planning and for improving the work of Setas and the department of higher education and training (DHET).

There has long been concern about the veracity of sector skills plans and their value as planning tools for their sectors and the country. One hopes that there will be improvement, not only in the quality of information but also in the quality of leadership and decision-making relating to skills and workforce development.

The second goal, to increase access to occupationally directed programmes, includes the ongoing training of the workforce and is probably the nub of the strategy. Setas are expected to play a significant role in supporting the development of “intermediate” skills — artisanal, technical and related occupations, as well as higher-level professional skills.

Employers willing to accept placement of newly qualified people will be able to “supplement the cost of the programme” with a grant from their Setas, says NSDSIII. These grants will be allocated from 10% of the mandatory grant, which will be ring-fenced to fund workplace-based training. This could significantly contribute to the annual target of 10 000 appropriately qualified artisans entering the economy each year.

To do this, the numbers of university-eligible school leavers, as well as the number of people who acquire a level four national certificate (vocational), will need to increase. NSDSIII says the strategies for achieving this could include bridging programmes to support “the production of priority skills in high-level occupationally directed programmes in the entire skills development pipeline, from universities and further education and training (FET) colleges to the workplace”.

In yet another departure, NSDSIII does not merely mention the knowledge economy, it goes further to recognise that workers need to change and adapt to a different world of work and that knowledge development through innovation and research is essential.

Consequently, the “DHET, in collaboration with higher education institutions and Setas, will be encouraging increased capacity to conduct research, as well as … sector-relevant research projects”.

The third goal envisions the growth of a public FET college system that is responsive to sector, local, regional and national skills needs and priorities. This is consistent with the important role that government envisions for public colleges and its calls for a stronger synergy between the colleges and the Setas.

The DHET’s strategic plan, published last year, acknowledges FET colleges as the most vulnerable sector in the skills development landscape.

It underlines the urgency with which its deficits must be addressed. This includes reviewing college qualifications to ensure that they meet industry needs, developing a “highly articulated system of qualifications between the FET and university programmes” and, critically, focusing on the “subject knowledge, pedagogy, workplace knowledge and experience” of FET college staff.

Goal four addresses the low level of youth and adult language and numeracy skills to enable additional training. This is really important and one hopes that, in working towards this goal, the Setas and the National Skills Fund will support the credible work that is already being done by companies and NGOs, such as Project Literacy.

The fifth goal encourages better use of workplace-based skills development and focuses on the ongoing training of employees “to improve the overall productivity of the economy … and skills imbalances” and the development of a workforce that can “adapt to change in the labour market”.

This goal also requires the establishment of cross-sectoral projects. Given the duplication of programmes and qualifications, as well as the often antagonistic attitudes towards turf, this is overdue.

Cooperatives, small enterprises, worker-initiated and NGO and community training initiatives are interestingly grouped together in goal six. Although all these may well face similar challenges, they exist for different reasons. Exactly how this goal will be achieved remains to be seen, but the partnership between the DHET and the department of trade and industry could prevent cooperatives and small businesses from falling through the proverbial cracks in the skills-development system. Hopefully, there will be some collaboration between employers and organised labour in the roll-out of worker-initiated training initiatives.

The social development funding window remains open, but requiring Setas to “establish quality pilot projects” is worrying because greenfields projects put NGOs at risk.

It would be more sensible to support established NGOs with a proven track record.

It seems that the funding initiatives that fall into this goal will come from both the Setas and the National Skills Fund. A further word of caution here: the Public Finance and Management Act is a further risk because few NGOs have the reserves or cash flow to allow them to wait for payment after delivery.

Goal seven’s dedicated focus on increasing public sector capacity is essential in South Africa. The public sector is the single largest employer in the country. In addition to the three spheres of government and the parastatals, it includes state-owned enterprises such as Eskom and Transnet.
Historically, these entities and Sasol were responsible for training large numbers of artisans. Although they no longer do so on the same scale, many still have training facilities that are underutilised.

A renewed commitment to building skills in health, education and the police is long overdue. Like any employer, the public service must ensure that public servants have the skills and knowledge necessary to do their jobs.

Building career and vocational guidance (goal eight) is essential for young people who have no idea where their real interests lie or what opportunities are available.

Mapping career paths to qualifications and disseminating this information is essential for both work seekers and employers. The Setas must invite contributions from relevant stakeholders as part of this process.

Setas have been a feature of the South African landscape for the past 11 years, seldom without controversy.

It appears that they are here to stay and the DHET does seem committed to cleaning them up, curbing “excess expenditure on governance and management salaries … and corruption of whatever type”.

Is the action taken against underperforming Setas last year just the beginning?

Fiona Cameron-Brown is the chief executive of Fiona Cameron Consulting, an independent consultancy offering services to the skills development and adult education sectors in South Africa and internationally