Covid-19 – Impact on Education, Skills Development and Training

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This webinar was hosted by the National Skills Authority (NSA), chaired by Dr Charles Nwaila, NSA Chairperson and facilitated by Dr Thabo Mashongoane, NSA Executive Officer. The webinar featured Melody Xaba, Learning and Development Consultant; Professor Hoosen Rasool, Advisor to the Department of Higher Education & Training on skills development issues; and Nazrene Mannie, a Specialist in Social Policy focusing on Youth Employment and Skills Development.

This webinar went on for over two hours, and a number of questions were fielded by the speakers from those attending it. The first speaker was Melody Xaba.

The National Skills Authority (NSA) is monitoring the impact of Covid-19 on education and training. Melody Xaba spoke about drivers of change and skills of the future. Pre-Covid-19, about 35% of the workforce was at risk of losing jobs due to automation, and this situation is now worse because of the crisis. All sectors have been impacted by the crisis, and thousands of businesses will close. Digital transformation has been accelerated massively, for example schools that were going to go digital over 10 years have done so in a matter of weeks. There is still a shortage of digital skills, so upskilling is essential.

There are six drivers of change and the major skills required for future work include being about to collaborate online; they are all interconnected. Roles that can be automated are disappearing. Mining is going to become increasingly digital for greater efficiency and to reduce risks, and the jobs that are increasing in the sector are things like drone operators. Upskilling and adaptation are essential, and much of this can take place online. Companies must look inside themselves in this process, not just externally.

Melody Xaba is a member of the MICT-SETA 4IR Committee

Digital upskilling will combat youth unemployment and entrepreneurship is essential, even within large organisations. A central organisation is required for enhancing youth upskilling employment, to co-ordinate the efforts of various groups and institutions, said Xaba. Soft skills are also essential, but there is seldom budget put aside for them. Solutions must be found for closing the digital divide, for South Africa to catch up: we cannot go back to old ways.

Many schools have adapted to the digital transformation process, and children with access have found this process something they can deal with quite quickly and easily. Some parts of the country don’t even have electricity yet, but we can’t let this hold us back; we have to implement digital transformation wherever we can. Businesses must also be able to make cultural shifts to be able to compete: degrees and experience don’t count for everything any more. Businesses must also be able to transform, as transformation is more important than anything else at this stage.

Professor Hoosen Rasool

We are constrained in the fight against Covid-19 by the same challenges we are seeking to address: poverty, inequality and unemployment. These problems are the obstacles standing in our way, as Minister Dr Blade Nzimande has pointed out. Reforms for the SETAs means we have to reconfigure the system itself. Unemployment in the youth was on the rise even before the Covid-19 crisis, and we don’t know what the figures will be during the following this crisis, as many businesses are unsure if they will survive. There are many scenarios projected, ranging from a quick recovery (three million unemployed) to the worst case scenario (over 50% of workplace unemployed). GDP may decline by up to 16%.

Professor Hoosen Rasool is an advisor to the Department of Higher Education & Training on skills development issues

The system is very complicated and bureaucratic, and this must be changed to make life easier for small businesses. There is little cohesion, it is not efficient and it is cost-heavy, so not enough money is being spent on training. In general, the system is unsound, and we are afraid to make the tough decisions; we need to make big, bold changes. Incremental changes lead to incremental results. The system is not allowing SETAs to change with the times; we need to have more collaborations to allow faster change.

The workplace will change drastically. Gigs jobs will grow; skilling will take precedence; new occupations will emerge; individuals will be responsible for their own development, etcetera. “The Covid-19 crisis means that the National Skills Development Plan must be scrapped, and a new plan must be put in place,” said Rasool. The new plan must be shorter, and it must be more flexible. The mandatory grant mechanism must be reviewed. The whole system must be simplified. SETAs are not banks and should not be managing money; they must focus on skills; we need fewer, larger SETAs, with fewer staff. The whole model is so 20th century!

Online learning is far cheaper for rural students than building learning institutions for them, so ensuring that they have online access is essential. Short courses must be recognised as a legitimate form of learning; fees must be reduced. Internships must be made more available; at present only a small elite have access to gaining work experience. We have to be extremely adaptable to change.

SETAs in South Africa must be simplified and streamlined, as must the tax and rebate systems for small businesses. All these regulations are not working. “I run a small business myself, and the bureaucracy is a nightmare.” Our school curriculum is based on sending learners to university, which is not what the labour market requires at all, so it is not based on preparing learners for the world of work. We can’t look at other countries for models; we must discern what our problems are and address them in our own context.

Nazrene Mannie

The Covid-19 crisis has shifted the way we view the education system drastically, and we really do need to shake up the system. The Global Apprenticeship Network (GAN) is a private sector-led alliance that works with big business, which we feel has a responsibility to drive change, and in so doing influence smaller businesses. We understand how to address the skills and jobs mismatch. We began by focusing on the youth unemployment issue, especially on apprenticeship, but now we are looking at on-the-job training for the whole workforce, because times have changed.

Nazrene Mannie is a specialist in social policy focusing on youth employment and skills development

Across the world the world millions of youths are unemployed, and the crisis will affect them the worst. There is a big shift to informal work, and a gap between training and development for those in the informal sector to the formal sector. Almost everyone (98%) of those involved in training have been affected the crisis, and about a third will not be able to return to their training, even with the online courses being adopted. There is also the problem of the digital divide in South Africa, which has to be overcome as a matter of urgency.

There has to be a shift to a new and hopefully better normal, where fewer people are disadvantaged. The change to online does work in certain contexts, and we will have to work hard to adapt and find new ways of working and socialising. Governments are expected to find solutions to the crisis, and the faster we can respond to getting people online the better. The green economy is opening up new opportunities for work, and we need political certainty, but not over-regulation; an enabling environment is crucial. Supply chains are shortening due to the crisis, so there are opportunities there too.

Some companies are doing online apprenticeships and recruitment, showing that it can be done. Collaborations are key, and good practice must be shared, for us all to move forward. Learning by sharing is growing. The crisis has shown that we can respond to change; people are able to work without being micro-managed, for instance. Trust is paramount, as is dialogue, engagement and inclusivity. Governments can make fast changes, as the crisis has demonstrated. Everything depends on how we manage to halt the spread of Covid-19, and how digital can be extended to as many people as possible.

Dr Thabo Mashongoane is the NSA Executive Officer

Training is possible in the informal space, as GAN has learned in Kenya. Apprenticeships such as becoming a blacksmith took place in the past from master to apprentice, from observing skills, all in the informal sector. The blockage comes when you try to move into the formal sector, and you don’t have that piece of paper that says you are qualified. We also need to find ways to “bank our learning”, for example if you have done a short course, or learned a skill, how is this recognised by potential employers?

Companies must be committed to upskilling apprentices. In Switzerland two-thirds of the youth do apprenticeships; cantons work with the schools, ensuring learners get skills, so there is investment in this process. Big companies are starting to move away from reliance on formal degrees; labour market demand is playing a bigger role, but foundational skills are still essential. A hybrid system is now emerging that will open up the labour market; the new market requires different ways of learning and new skills. We must embrace all the partners involved in the system such as the National Skills Authority and share our learning; there is a new culture of learning.

Dr Charles Nwaila

Dr Charles Nwaila thanked the speakers for their presentations, and pointed out that there were several convergences on what they had discussed.

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