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THERE'S SKILL IN A CLEVER PLAN

“We’re thrilled,” enthused Cheryl James, of the financial services sector education and training authority (Fasset), in a response shared widely among buoyant Seta chief executives to the new national skills development strategy that was unveiled by Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande last week.

“It couldn’t be better for us,” said James’s counterpart at the health and welfare Seta, Corrie Smit. Banking Seta chief executive Max Makhubalo found the strategy “much more streamlined than it was in the past” and said it would allow “for a lot more interaction between the Setas and government”.

“It shows just how much the skills development community has matured under the leadership of the department of higher education and training [DHET] this past year,” Makhubalo said.

Underpinning the Setas’ glee is that the third phase of the national skills development strategy (the NSDS3) acknowledges the quality and depth of work the authorities have done in the past decade. Equally importantly, the strategy is based on the premise that there is a shared responsibility for skills development in the country — that government is as accountable as the Setas for its success or failure.

Finally, the NSDS3 is both pragmatic in outlook and realistic in the outcomes it seeks to achieve. All in all, say commentators, it’s a strategy with a capital S.

“NSDS3 takes a massive leap forward from its predecessors,” said Dr Hoosen Rasool, a former chief executive of the clothing and textiles Seta and now managing director of the Management College of Southern Africa. “It demonstrates a considerably deeper understanding of the complexities and dynamics of the South African labour market and economy.

“The strategy is extremely friendly to the social partners — business, labour and government — and there is absolutely no reason why they should not put their shoulders to the wheel to make it work. If we can achieve just 50% of the outcomes of the strategy, this country will fly,” he said.

The NSDS and its primary delivery systems, the Setas, have drawn mixed reviews since they first saw the light of day a decade ago. Criticisms of bureaucracy and inefficiency (both systemic and institutional) were levelled mainly by business and union stakeholders but were often echoed by the department of labour, which held stewardship of the strategy before the higher education department took over a year ago.

In December Nzimande referred to these charges when he presented the new, more streamlined Seta landscape for the NSDS3. “Despite calls from some circles to close down the Setas, I have, with advice from the National Skills Authority and my department, opted for the announced option. Undoubtedly, over the past 10 years of their existence, work has been undertaken in the Setas that has contributed positively to our skills development initiatives.

“It would have been folly for me to close them down given the expectations and challenges we face as a country. However, we have to ask ourselves whether, in their current form, Setas are up to the task of addressing the skills development challenges facing our country.”

Nzimande added, though: “The configuration of government in the past has contributed to some of these challenges. The location of education and training institutions in the former department of education and the skills development infrastructure in the department of labour made it very difficult to bring about the necessary and required synergies in education, training and skills development.”

The higher education department was formed after the 2009 elections and the NSDS, with its attendant structures, was transferred into its care a few months later. “The integration of education, training and skills development in a single department affords us the opportunity to address this major challenge,” Nzimande said in his December Seta landscape announcement.

Nevertheless, he said, “I think we need to initiate some drastic changes in the Setas if we are to convince the public that they are worth having.”

Last week he heralded the NSDS3, saying its key driving force was “improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the skills development system. This strategy represents an explicit commitment to encouraging the linkage of skills development to career development, and promoting sustainable employment and in-work progression.

“NSDS3 addresses the scope and mandate of the Setas. They are expected to facilitate the delivery of sector-specific skills interventions that help achieve the goals of [the] NSDS3, address employer demand and deliver results.

“Setas must be the authority on labour market intelligence and ensure that skills needs and strategies to address these needs are set out clearly in sector skills plans. They must be recognised experts in relation to skills demand in their sectors. NSDS3 provides a stronger base for the Setas and DHET, through service-level agreements, to set targets that align with sector skills needs — that is, there is no one-size-fits-all …”

The NSDS3 sets eight qualitative goals — each accompanied by outcomes and outputs that will be used for monitoring the strategy’s implementation and evaluating its impact — based on the relevance of skills programmes in reducing poverty and reducing continued inequalities. In this sense it differs radically from its predecessors that set objectives supported by numerical targets in the form of success indicators and levers.

The main shortcoming of the NSDS1 and 2 was that they degenerated into numbers games whereby a Seta’s success was measured only by its ability to meet or exceed the targets allocated. There were no mechanisms built in to those strategies to evaluate whether “successful” Seta-led programmes such as learnerships led to social development and economic growth.

Fasset’s Cheryl James believes that the new strategy will give the body more autonomy but that this will be accompanied by greater responsibility and accountability.

“The NSDS3 is not the wish list its predecessors were. It is a lot more focused on what the country — government, business, labour and educational institutions — as well as the Setas should be doing to grow the economy equitably … and then making damn sure we do it properly,” James said.

The strategy states: “It is recognised that some Setas have found it difficult to meet the demands of the skills development legislation and align their work to the NSDS. Setas are such important institutions and will have such an important role in NSDS3 implementation that it will be impossible to ignore poor performance. The DHET will monitor functioning and performance closely and will be intervening when it is not of the required level.

“New constitutions will be adopted by Setas, based on a common framework provided by the department. A range of measures are planned to curb excess expenditure on governance and management salaries and end waste of resources due to corruption,” it adds.

“Of course, those Setas that have not performed well in the past will probably feel threatened,” said James.

Makhubalo said it is positive that, in the new strategy, accountability for its successful implementation will be shared by the stakeholders. Previously, if targets weren’t met, only business and the Setas were pilloried.

“The NSDS3 specifically addresses the need for partnerships and collective responsibility between stakeholders,” he said. “These include government, business organisations, trade unions, constituency bodies and delivery agents such as Setas, public bodies, employers, trade and professional bodies, public and private training providers, community-based organisations, cooperatives and NGOs.

“The strategy places great emphasis on equipping the public further education and training college system to become more responsive to sector, local, regional and national skills needs and priorities.

“If the DHET fails to capacitate these institutions appropriately, it cannot blame the Setas or business for not absorbing learners who are improperly equipped for the world of work.”

So NSDS3 is practicable, but can it work? “It certainly can,” said Gill Connellan, chairperson of the Association for Skills Development Facilitation in South Africa, “provided we build on the lessons of past NSDS strategies and do not repeat their mistakes. One of the biggest flaws has been poor communication between the responsible government department, Setas and their stakeholders. The DHET must launch an intensive process whereby it communicates the goals and mechanics of the NSDS3 to its proposed beneficiaries.

“This should not be couched in sociopolitical language but rather in terms of the bottom line for companies, unions, colleges, learners, parents and communities.”

Article by Mail & Guardian



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