The government’s green paper on post-school education and training makes clear connections between adult education and training and economic growth. Still open for public comment, the paper also calls on all employers to play their part in relation to such training.
We need to be clear about why and how they could do so. The “why” should by now be widely recognised. The Annual National Assessment results, which the basic education department released last June, found that the national average performance among grade-three learners was 35% in literacy and 28% in numeracy. Among grade sixes, the national average in languages was 28% and 30% for mathematics.
These results provide one example of the context that makes adult education inevitable, as the green paper recognises. Many adults can read and write, but are still functionally illiterate. That is, they are not able to execute written and verbal instructions because they lack a fundamental training in English and they cannot solve basic numeracy problems because a fundamental grounding in maths is absent.
Releasing the green paper in January, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande said access to education and training should be provided to the poor free of charge. This will be possible only if the state provides sufficient funding for service providers. There are many providers of adult education in government and the private sector that offer a variety of learning areas. I believe, though, that the fundamentals remain English, communication and mathematics. Only with these foundations firmly established can further education in other learning areas such as economic and management sciences, human and social sciences, life orientation and arts and culture take place productively.
A direct impact on the economy
Adult education has a direct impact on the economy and on the individual. Imagine a country in which each working individual understood the principle of interest and how to calculate it, where individuals understood how to save money and how to budget for their monthly electricity usage, where individuals could create their own job opportunities through their ability to communicate, make independent decisions, solve basic problems and be creative about finding new business opportunities.
It is true, as the green paper suggests, that the further education and training offered by government and in colleges can boost employment, and anyone can attend these classes. But the problem remains that many still have to earn a living and cannot always afford the time to study, even at reduced cost or no charge.
The onus is therefore on organisations to assist their employees. When a large organisation trains its staff in the fundamentals of English communication and maths, it creates new job opportunities both by empowering individuals with initiatives to start their own small companies and by enabling them to grow within the organisation.
It is a fact that small and medium-sized companies are the biggest drivers of employment because they are the ones that create the majority of entry jobs. This in turn increases the economically active population, which has a direct impact on the country’s overall economy.
When employees are trained in ways that lead to their progression within an organisation, positions become vacant that allow for others to enter the job market and, in turn, the economically active population of the country grows.
Understanding the consequences
The training of staff in large organisations also enhances communication and decision-making, which affects overall productivity. Consider, for instance, how many individuals taking part in strike action centred on wage disputes actually understand what an increase of, say, 18% means. It makes sense to equip employees with the fundamental skills that allow them not only to understand the personal consequences of their requests (higher income results in higher income tax, UIF and pension-fund contributions, which results in lower take-home pay) but also the greater impact on the national economy.
Another important factor to consider when discussing adult education is its contribution to broad-based black economic empowerment, which plays a major role in the country’s economy because it empowers the middle class. It is the middle-class worker who ultimately grows the country’s economy while gaining access to prosperity. And remember, too, that learnerships also have black economic empowerment requirements in which adult education plays an essential role.
Organisations today have two options in meeting black economic empowerment requirements regarding ownership, management, employment equity and skills development. They can employ skilled people at the correct level or train existing staff members.
The return on investment on the latter is far greater than many think, for two reasons. First, the sector education and training authorities reward organisations financially for spending a percentage of their skills-development budget on adult education. Second, the government also promotes scoring in this area by allowing organisations to add an extra 25% on their adult-education spending. For example, if an organisation spends R1-million on adult education during the year, it can report R1.25-million towards points for skills development.
When it comes to corporate social investment, it is required that a company’s projects build sustainability. This is not done by writing out a cheque, but rather by imparting skills that can be used, such as reading and writing.
The importance of adult education for the country’s economy has been overlooked by many in the past. Until literacy and numeracy are adequately addressed by basic education at primary-school level, adult education will remain the only way of empowering our nation. Why risk waiting for a new generation to enrich the country when the power of economic growth lies under our noses?
Lance Clack is the managing director of Triple E Training. The green paper, which can be downloaded from dhet.gov.za, remains open for comment until April 30.