SA’s attempts to achieve accelerated and shared growth over the past decade or so have been thwarted by shortages of artisan, technical and other vocational skills. The basic problem is poor educational quality despite high expenditure. In addition, the disappearance of apprenticeships, shortcomings in training by sector education and training authorities (Setas) and the inadequacies of further education and training (FET) institutions have made their own contributions to this blockage to growth.
At the same time, the country is haunted by the waste of youthful potential represented by about 3-million young people between the ages of 18 and 24 who, according to the Department of Higher Education and Training’s recent green paper, are not in employment, education or training.
Unlike basic and general education, the point of post-secondary education, at institutions such as FET colleges, technical high schools and technikons, is employability. Since the private sector is the engine of job creation, qualifications that are highly regarded by business should be the goal.
This has not been the case up to now. Despite government attempts to expand vocational education, qualifications from vocational schools often fail to inspire employers’ confidence; teachers at vocational schools and colleges don’t have enough experience; and students are often uninterested or unable to cope.
What business and industry need in order to create employment is people who can “hit the ground running” and be productive in the workplace immediately. The key to this is good quality, vocationally oriented education in which school-leavers are exposed to occupations in technological, commercial, agricultural and other fields and receive further post-school training before they can enter the labour market.
How can this be achieved? The Centre for Development and Enterprise’s new research in this area makes it clear that a strong role for the private sector is desirable. We have identified several successful vocationally oriented programmes in which the education or training institution works closely with business or industry.
One example is the Middelburg Higher Technical School near the industrial hub of eMalahleni (formerly Witbank) in Mpumalanga. Partnerships between the school and industry give pupils training opportunities that address two critical shortages – technical and artisan skills – and a diversity of appropriate education pathways after Grade 9 to help develop these skills.
The private sector, including companies such as Toyota, invests heavily in the school, provides after-school training and considers pupils favourably for employment. It has also devised a modular, after-school training course for interested pupils and has appointed teachers to lead this. Once pupils have successfully completed the first modules and their schooling, they can apply for employment at Toyota, where they will complete their training as employees.
Employment is not guaranteed, but pupils who complete the course can apply to any Toyota dealer in SA for a job.
Another Middelburg company, Samancor, a ferrochrome-producer, also uses the school for specific, after-school training. This training is Seta-accredited and focuses on pre-artisan training for Grade 10 to 12 pupils. Successful pupils are employed by the company and given further training once they finish school.
Research on international experience also underlines the importance of private sector involvement in vocational education. Partnership arrangements between the government, education institutions, organised employer bodies and trade unions demonstrate that no one sector can solve training and unemployment problems on its own. Germany and Switzerland are prime examples of successful, dual-track, vocational education systems. In Germany, learning at a vocational school is combined with apprenticeship training at a host company. The success of some of its famous companies may partly be attributed to this partnership.
In Switzerland, most companies are small enterprises, employing fewer than 10 people. Public funding amounts to about 55% of all funding for this sector, while private funding makes up the balance. This suggests considerable business confidence in the education provided – not yet the case in SA.
In Australia, the National Partnership on Youth Attainment and Transitions facilitates the transition of pupils into technical and further education. This includes the Community Partnership Brokers Programme, which is aimed at improving community and business engagement with schools, to extend learning beyond the classroom.
Successful outcomes such as these require a high degree of collaboration between the government and industry at the planning stage. Effective partnerships combine a mix of knowledge and skills, drawing on general education, as well as vocational education. One important aspect is that appropriate mathematics and science syllabuses are devised for the technical subjects. Another is that teachers have knowledge and understanding of the workplace and its demands, as well as their own subject expertise.
SA lags far behind on many of these criteria. Strengthening vocational education so that it can play a strong role in economic development and employment creation will require four key elements.
First, the country needs to develop a specific policy framework for expanding vocational education, particularly at identified focus schools. This requires the government to reprioritise the role this type of education should play in our school system.
Second, the role of business needs to be clarified and extended. The businesses involved should meet certain conditions. For example, the company involved should be a leader in its field, and the schooling process should meet the norms and standards of that industry. This will help students become potentially preferred employees.
Third, maths and science education must be improved countrywide.
It is difficult to understand why pupils who want to become artisans and those who want to become engineers and engineering scientists are expected to follow the same maths and physical science syllabus, as is now the case. The great task of making maths and science schooling fit for purpose needs much greater focus, urgency and leadership from the two departments involved, and engagement with the private sector, which has so much at stake.
Fourth, these proposals are based on the assumption that the private sector will be given the opportunity for constructive, meaningful participation and engagement in strengthening and developing vocational education in our school system. If the links between vocational education and youth employment are to be improved, business should be central to any rebuilding.
Until this rebuilding is well under way, vocational and vocationally-oriented education will continue to be seen as second best. The idea that this type of education is inferior should be addressed urgently.
Unless the public and private sectors are encouraged to work together to solve the numerous and onerous difficulties that beset our education system, the result will be poorer education, higher unemployment and lower economic growth.
By ANN BERNSTEIN and JEFF MCCARTHY