The COVID-19 pandemic has affected not only how we live, think and work but also how we acquire skills. This is particularly crucial for young people, large numbers of whom are excluded from labour market. South Africa’s latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey showed joblessness for those aged between 15 and 34 at 46,3%.
To address the challenges of skills provision and acquisition, policy makers and researchers have set their sights on the vocational education and training system. But the view that this alone is the answer to solve existing labour market crises is flawed for three reasons.
First, it ignores the main problem – the lack of demand for labour. Second, it highlights a lack of understanding of how skills are developed, and that the nature of the economy shapes the nature of skills produced. And third, it disregards the fact that the existing weaknesses of the vocational and education training system are caused by lack of labour demand and insufficient analysis of the role of the economy in shaping skill formation.
The relationships between education, poverty and inequality in South Africa are complex. Labour markets are a key determinant of inequality. But lack of demand for skilled labour outweighs lack of skilled workers. Nonetheless, building the skills of the workforce remains a crucial part of economic development and reconstruction.
In terms of skills development, a complex array of institutions and policies have been established since 1994 in an attempt to improve relationships between labour markets and education providers. Incentives have been created to encourage employers to provide training to their workers and pre-employed people.
However, these policies and institutions have met with many challenges. One is that the institutional environment is now complex and expensive, without much visible improvement in the system. There’s little to show for years of reform, as well as an extensive range of donor initiatives to support projects, policy reforms, and institutional reform.
One example is the Technical and Vocational Education and Training system. This has been the subject of many reforms. But policy makers and industry continue to argue that the system remains weak and that the colleges don’t meet their needs.
On top of this the qualifications system is enormously complex. Layers of new qualifications and ways of designing qualifications have been added, without removing the previous ones.
Against this backdrop, our research set out to understand the impact of COVID-19 on skills formation in South Africa.
The pandemic has heightened existing weaknesses in the system. Few vocational colleges have the necessary facilities for online learning. Also, few students have the prior educational background that makes online learning workable.
Only 10 out of 50 colleges had learner management systems enabling online teaching and learning. Some sought to make tutorials available on social media. However, often lecturers didn’t have their own data or even a quiet place to teach from. Learners faced the same problems.
The second area affected by the pandemic is workplace placements. As a result of the pandemic, companies have been unable to accommodate learners. This has similarly been a long standing challenge.
A third affected area is funding: the skills system has lost about R6.1 billion as a result of suspension of the skills levy during the lockdown and other factors. The levy was suspended as part of tax relief to companies during the pandemic.
A further issue affecting the skills development system is the qualification system. What’s lacking is a balance between shorter training programmes and long-term formal qualifications. The advocates of micro-credentials – these are industry aligned short courses which have a narrow focus on preparation for work – are suggesting them as the solution to this lack of balance.
The Quality Council on Trades and Occupations – established in 2010 to set standards for and quality assure qualifications linked to a trade or occupation – has recently reconfigured occupational qualifications. These include revisiting the formal requirement for workplace experience, which learners now simply cannot get (and most could not get before COVID-19).
It has also introduced new regulations to address the need for short programmes which can only be accredited as a “part qualification”, which is constituted by credits within a full qualification. Full qualifications are now defined in terms of number of credits.
This step sought to address the proliferation of part qualifications that didn’t lead to a full qualification, as well as qualifications of varied sizes. But it created the unintended consequence of negating the possibility that industry associations could determine the need for a short programme that is accredited and that enables the graduate to access a specific opportunity in the workplace.
Thus, the organising logic is based on where qualifications exist rather than on where demand is.
The lack of success is partly due to the flawed idea that market mechanisms will ensure more responsive, agile, demand-led Technical and Vocational Education and Training, using qualifications, including “micro-credentials”, as a policy lever.
The focus is on the need for agility and short-term relevance. Reforms have emphasised employers specifying the skills or competences they require, and education and training institutions being given funding for courses that attempt to lead to these specific competences.
This should, according to advocates, enable educational institutions to provide only the required competences and thereby enable “consumers” – employers or individuals trying to equip themselves in labour markets – to purchase only the “bits” that they want without having to sit through long educational programmes.
In this magical world vocation and education training will ensure that:
curricula are decentralised and therefore responsive,
employers can specify their needs, and
both public and private providers can be held accountable as their programmes can be measured against the competences delivered.
But this is a simplistic supply and demand notion. Policy reforms based on it take no account of how skills are actually developed for work in the real economy.
The approach also works against building strong, robust, healthy institutions.
South Africa needs to focus on supporting institutions, building partnerships with employers, and ensuring that thinking about skills is incorporated into industrial policy processes.
Our research highlights the need to think about the quality of work and organisation of workplaces as well as skills development inside industrial policy and inside different economic sector strategies. This also requires having formal providers of vocational education and training to be embedded inside the industries.
One implication of this is the need for industry- or sector-specific and not general strategies for skills development.
In addition, education institutions should offer broad vocational and education training qualifications that include components of general education and components of locally needed skills.
At the same time, we need better funding mechanisms for shorter accredited programmes that are recognised by employers and professional associations, and less formal, responsive short courses.
This requires deeper relationships between colleges and employers. It also requires more support for institutions providing the training and a set of qualifications that focus on occupational streams and clusters.
Finally and most importantly, skills policy needs to be in line with an economic recovery focused on jobs. Skills planning needs to be incorporated inside the industrial policy process instead of an add-on.