/ 6 June 2011

A bridge across the skills gap

A Bridge Across The Skills Gap

One of the biggest gripes of business in the employment-equity and skills debate is the fact that there are not enough properly qualified people in the marketplace to fill vacancies. The latest report by human resources firm Adcorp indicates that as a result of this, there are more than 800 000 professional vacancies in South Africa.

The constant gripe is that employment-equity legislation forces employers to absorb people who have poor qualifications, limited exposure to the workplace and limited work experience. The new skills-development approach we are now driving seeks to address exactly these issues. Such an approach, which seeks to bridge the gap between merely theoretical qualifications and practical exposure, cannot be dismissed as an approach that will destroy workplace training.

If you read Suzanne Hattingh’s article, “Making Setas his business” (Education, May 27), you would be forgiven for concluding that the priorities of government in terms of skills development are worlds apart from businesses’ priorities and that government’s priorities have nothing to do with transforming the economy or gearing it to the necessary productivity to address economic goals. Nothing is further from the truth.

Our new skills-development strategy is meant precisely to ensure that, before we can spend money on crash courses, improvement courses and other ad hoc interventions, we should lay a good foundation by skilling our people properly. Their qualifications must also address the needs of business, which means including exposure to practical workstreams, gained from spending time in the relevant workplaces. This balanced qualification should enable job-seekers to be appointed at the right level in the first instance.

It is our considered view that it therefore behoves the private sector to work closely with further education and training (FET) colleges to make this new paradigm a reality. The dismissal of the entire network of more than 50 FET colleges as having “consistently failed” to produce what the private sector requires needs to be challenged fiercely, especially if this argument is being advanced to stop the rechanneling of major resources to enable the same FET colleges to improve the qualifications they give to their graduates.

Surely it must be accepted that a balance has to be struck between the resources meant to train students in the first place and those meant to retool or improve skills in the workplace? Surely it can’t be argued that the skewing of Seta resources (where 90% of the R8-billion spent is spent on ad-hoc courses in the name of workplace relevance) should be allowed to continue? Would the private sector not prefer to have, even at entry level, employees who have had adequate exposure to the workplace, so that such employees do not have to be retrained as they arrive at their new jobs?

Would it not make sense for the private sector to partner FET colleges that have an established resource base and an academic reputation, rather than what amounts to a lobbying for the continuation of the use of private consultants, who have created a whole industry out of courses that turn our people into cheap labour? How can we justify spending up to R60 000 a student on a 19-day course when that money could be spent on getting a citizen properly qualified so that he or she has better earning capacity when looking for a first job?

Although the forecast for short courses looks gloomy, we maintain that what we seek is a balance between short-term and long-term training; and we want more sustainable interventions.

In simple terms:

  • New entrants should graduate with exposure to the workplace instead of mere theory. This will require the private sector to take in trainees and interns. The resources of the Setas must make this possible;
  • New entrants will, therefore, not be exploited and turned into cheap labour using the “no experience” argument; and
  • The private sector will still be able to benefit from work-aligned training. For this to happen, it does not require 90% of the R8-billion set aside for this task. A partnership between the private sector and FET colleges will naturally determine what resources are required.

Because the proposition to ensure that FETs give students a much better qualification is a reasonable one, it should be welcomed by business. Is there another reason anyone would oppose its implementation?

The reality is that the unhealthy skewing between resources spent on formal and what amounts to informal improvement or crash courses has generated a multimillion-rand industry that has come to feed off what is really an inefficient use of Seta funds. Now that this tap is about to be turned off, new reasons are emerging about what business really desires.

It is clear that with 800 000 vacancies in South Africa, the model of overemphasis on pre or post-qualification short courses has failed to address our skills gap. We have yet to uncover the extent of corruption in some Setas, where even board members sought to give associates work under a flawed system of service-provider approval. Hence our insistence on changing the nature of Seta governance by introducing independent chairpersons.

It’s interesting that our desire to divert funds to make FET colleges more efficient is described by Hattingh as “throwing money at the problem”. The once-off capitalisation was never going to be enough to bring these colleges up to a standard that would satisfy market demands. We have a clear and unapologetic agenda: to make sure that dealing with the skills shortage is not reduced to ad hoc interventions.

That would keep those with previous opportunities in senior positions and those only recently exposed to short-term interventions as perpetual students. We believe it should be possible, with the R8-billion, to improve both the theory and practice of graduates.

We are calling on business to partner with us to ensure that the resources set aside for skills development are used efficiently to achieve common objectives and not narrow sectoral interests.

Gwebinkundla Gwebs Qonde is acting director general of the department of higher education and training