Tackling the skills shortage

2007-12-03 00:00

ONE of the biggest challenges facing CEO Sipho Khuzwayo and his staff at the Umgungundlovu FET College is getting people to understand what goes on at a Further Education and Training (FET) college.

“The level of ignorance about us is alarming,” admits Khuzwayo from the college’s head office in Prince Alfred Street. But he and his staff have already made “huge strides”, having signed a memorandum of understanding with the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business and Msunduzi Municipality. And on the day I visit, the institution is to host local business and industry leaders. “Once industries know of the quality of our tuition, the better for everyone,” says Khuzwayo.

With the average age of an artisan in South Africa sitting at 55, it’s easy to see how a skills shortage is compromising the country’s global competitiveness and curtailing economic growth. As far as the government is concerned, the spotlight is now firmly on the FET sector, which is viewed as a critical component of Asgisa, the accelerated economic growth initiative. KwaZulu-Natal Education MEC Ina Cronjé, whose department is responsible for education delivery in the province, has repeatedly emphasised the role of FETs in poverty alleviation.

Government has put its money where its mouth is with a R1,9 billion three-year national FET recapitalisation programme which is helping to give FET colleges around the country a much-needed facelift. It is also timed to help with the implementation of the National Certificate Vocational (NCV), a new vocational qualification introduced this year which replaces the more theoretical National Technical Education (Nated) courses.

For the Umgungundlovu FET college, which has five campuses in the greater Pietermaritzburg area and two satellite campuses in Richmond and Msinga, the programme has meant a cash injection of R40 million over three years, the benefits of which are already evident. A new electrical workshop at the Northdale campus is nearing completion. A library at the Plessislaer campus, a plumbing workshop at Edendale and a state-of-the-art electronics and IT facility at the Midlands campus are up and running. Further improvements are planned for 2008 and funds have been earmarked for staff training.

An emphasis on practical skills is evident in the simulated work environments developed on each of the college’s five semi-specialised campuses. They range from building sites to hairdressing and beauty salons, motor mechanics workshops and corporate offices. At the Northdale campus, hospitality students have access to a new fully-fitted kitchen, bar and dining area, as well as rooms which mirror a hotel environment and where fundamental hotel skills such as the making up of beds to silver service can be mastered.

Khuzwayo says the introduction of the NCV programme this year has been “well received” and the NCV information technology students I spoke to had good things to say about their course.

National bursaries are available for these programmes and the college is under pressure from government to increase its NCV enrolment eight-fold over the next few years. Most of these students will come from schools, a move which is likely to fuel perceptions from some quarters that FET colleges are trying to deprive schools of pupils.

Acting marketing manager Lynn Horan says the decision to take children out of mainstream schools after Grade 9 and put them into FET colleges is still a “difficult” one for parents. There are obvious benefits: students can attain the equivalent of a matric certificate, and be immediately employable. In addition, the NCV does not rule out the option of higher education at university, or university of technology, later on.

Horan says in the final year of the NCV course, students will be placed with an employer. This, combined with training in interview techniques, language skills, entrepreneurship and basic computer and maths literacy, is intended to produce a student who is industry prepared.

In any new venture, however, there are teething problems. One of these is the skills gap that will exist while the NCV students complete their three-year programme. “With the N1 to N3, students could leave at any point and would generally exit every trimester,” says Horan.

The replacement of apprenticeships with learnerships by the Skills Education Training Authorities (Setas) which are responsible for skills development, also means that the college can no longer help industry, and small businesses in particular, prepare students for trade tests. “The Department of Education is aware of the issue and we are looking for a solution,” says Horan.

While the FET system dictates that campuses gear their offerings towards locally-needed skills, enrolling and retaining sufficient numbers of students — who are often keen to move to larger urban centres, is a challenge which threatens the fundamental principle guiding the establishment of courses, particularly in semi-rural areas: economic viability.

Cronjé says her department’s policy is to extend FETs as far as possible, bearing in mind the viability issue. Since 2004, the number of FET delivery sites in KwaZulu-Natal has increased from 51 to over 70.

While the MEC says the semi-specialisation of campuses is designed to give students “the best of the best”, in reality students are often guided in their choice of programmes by practical issues such as transport. Horan says city campuses fill up within a week at the start of the year because it costs less to get there.

It is hoped that the introduction of two more campuses to the Umgungundlovu college fold — in Greytown and Maphumulo — is likely to relieve some of this pressure.

Part-time and distance students also need more classes. According to Horan, the college’s distance learning component has grown 400% in two years because of its appeal to government employees for whom promotion is difficult without qualifications.

For Khuzwayo, the best possible solution to employment issues lies in partnerships. He says without strong ties with business and industry, the country’s skills problem will never be addressed.

At present, the college enjoys a number of local and international partnerships. The institution is training municipal employees “in three or four identified areas” and enjoys links with the legal fraternity over the skilling of secretaries, and with the plumbing industry. A relationship with a Flemish organisation has been forged to teach entrepreneurship skills to KZN students. With funding from the Ford Foundation and assistance from Bronx Community College in the United States, an articulation programme will allow the first group of N6 Business Studies students and Engineering students to move to the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2008.

What Khuzwayo calls a “particularly vibrant” partnership exists between the college and the Tool Association of South Africa (Tasa), which initiated a pilot training programme at the Plessislaer campus in response to a critical shortage of trained artisans in tooling, said to be the backbone of industry in South Africa.

What is an FET college?

Further Education and Training colleges are relatively new entities which offer tuition in a range of vocational subjects, including level 2 (Grade 10), level 3 (Grade 11) and level 4 (Grade 12) as well as higher education diplomas. Short skills courses are also offered.

The product of mergers over the last five to six years between former technical colleges and other training centres, the FET colleges were intended to promote economies of scale.

A total of 150 colleges were consolidated into 52 multi-campus colleges.

While the mergers took place, at least nominally, under the framework of the FET Act of 1998, a more recent piece of legislation — the FET College Act of 2006 — has galvanised the sector, improving the status of the colleges by giving them a separate legal and educational identity from high schools. Tthe 2006 act gives colleges more autonomy over staff appointments and conditions of service, supports the tuition of adult learners through evening and weekend classes and introduces greater mobility between colleges and universities.

This year saw the introduction of the new three-year National Certificate Vocational (NCV), which is intended to respond to the economy’s most pressing skills demands. The NCV replaces the former N1 to N3 courses and gives students who have completed Grade 9 the opportunity to undergo training on National Qualifications Framework (NQF) levels 2 to 4.

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