Training at ACRA. Image credit: © Eamonn Ryan/RACA

Training at ACRA. Image credit: © Eamonn Ryan/RACA

By Eamonn Ryan

School education continues to drive scholars to either the jobless market or to universities as opposed to where the need really lies – in trade employment.

Due to substandard education, the average cognitive skill level of South Africa lags behind that of its poorer neighbouring countries, according to Garth Zietsman, a statistician who analyses and writes for the Free Market Foundation. He writes that it’s feasible that South Africa could at least equal the current mental skill level of those neighbours, but that is by no means a high level. If we were to improve the current cognitive skill level to that of our neighbours at least, we should expect the annual economic growth rate to increase almost 1%. 1

He notes that English working classes once suffered the same defect, but in short order gained the cognitive skills necessary to improve industrial productivity and their employment and wages rose dramatically, transforming their lives and prospects.

To similarly achieve this, South African students need to verifiably acquire new skills each year, rather than merely spending time in school, and that results only in a pretence of ‘qualifications’ that is actually rather expensive. Scraping a 30% pass on what is undemanding material does not equate to a build-up of skills.

This scenario is compounded when it comes to the trades. Not only is it a struggle to get matriculants to opt for a trade, when they do qualify from a technical and vocational education and training (TVET) anecdotal evidence is that they are virtually unemployable.

Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister Dr Blade Nzimande earlier this year announced a drop in registrations for Ministerial-approved programmes TVET colleges for the 2023 academic year. The National Development Plan (NDP) targets to get 2.5-million TVET registrations a year by 2030, a target which seems grossly out of reach.

The 2023 enrolment was 497 032, compared to 508 000 in 2022, which was itself lower than the enrolments funded by the State and TVET colleges in the 2021 academic year. Further, the total number of candidates, at 133 442, who wrote the November 2022 National Vocational Certificate Level 2 to 4 examinations, decreased by 4 909, or 3.7%, compared with the 2021 figure.

Performance is an issue

Grant Laidlaw, CEO of Air Conditioning And Refrigeration Academy (ACRA) and SAIRAC National Treasurer, comments that TVET institutions have no lack of students even if current applications are down, but there are massive performance issues. He gives the illustration of a Gauteng TVET, which has 12 000 students (across multiple campuses) – a considerable number to manage.

He notes that an audit conducted on their staff revealed that a troubling percentage of teachers were not qualified to do the training they are employed to do and were consequently described as having ‘qualifications unknown’.
“I don’t believe that industry is willing to take on graduates of public TVETs, as students don’t learn sufficiently there. The TVETs, for instance, don’t for the most part utilise practical workshops notwithstanding the large amount of public money they receive. There are exceptions, of course.”

The dysfunction of public education is illustrated by a Western Cape project with international assistance who initiated a project to introduce R290 refrigerant training to the Western Cape, with the aim of job creation. Even in the Western Cape, because it was at a governmental level they wouldn’t use a private training provider, their focus being on Public TVET. The international funding bought equipment for them, and industry supplied two lecturers for the initial training interventions but since the initial training was completed, to date no additional training has been done and no jobs have been created,” says Laidlaw.

That underlines the problem – public TVETs just don’t perform and something dramatic would have to happen to change that.

The situation is not unique to public TVET colleges as some private technical colleges have quality issues.

Funding for training

Funding for training in South Africa comes from a number of sources, both private or public. The public TVETs are funded by the government, though Laidlaw describes that as “[A] numbers game based on number of students passing through the system”. That’s why quality is affected in a culture of no consequence for non-performance by TVETs.

“In the private training space, if one doesn’t perform there’s the institution’s reputation at stake as well as financial consequences. Being solely profit driven can and does result in some private institutions taking shortcuts to improve their margins. Some funding for private education comes from government sources in the form of grants. These grants are available to both public and private providers, though it’s more difficult for the private colleges. Then, the industry itself funds some either directly (a little) or through the SETA (Sector Education and Training Authority) system, from the 1% of wage turnover that SARS receives.” The South Africa Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Contractors Association (SARACCA) offers training funding to its membership.

Laidlaw explains how this works practically: “For a small air-conditioning company employing 20 technicians, which wants to upskill or take on interns, there is a window of opportunity every year whereby it can apply for grants. This stems from the fact that the company has paid into the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) system via the Skills Development Levy and can get about 70-80% of that money back. There are also discretionary grants, which a business can apply for if it wants to take on, say, two apprentices. That is attractive, if they can get it, given the payout can be in excess of R200 000 over three years per apprentice.

“It’s a structured, contracted arrangement that more or less covers the cost of the apprenticeship, including wages to an extent.

However, he notes that this grant system is unreliable and companies tend to receive the grants sporadically, if at all. “Some companies pursuing this option give up and ultimately acquire a negative view of training in general because of all the hoops they have to jump through to get a grant – and on top of that to no avail. While frustration is understandable, this attitude misses the point that they should in any event have a budget for training company staff as a sound business practice,” emphasises Laidlaw.

For private technical training, industry itself is the ‘bread and butter’ of funding. “For instance, there are companies that send employees for training and pay for it themselves. The smallest portion of money comes from parents who put the kids into private training – which is roughly the same cost as moderate school fees. Some providers such as ourselves will guarantee work placement following training. We do this to show we stand behind our quality of training. As there is a shortage of refrigeration tradespeople in South Africa, and air conditioning and refrigeration is on the national skill list, it’s relatively easy to find employment or indeed self-employment.”

He notes that the secret to ACRA finding jobs and designing courses appropriately is to be close to the industry. “We don’t tell them what training they need, they tell us.”

Some funding for education comes from international sources, usually directly to service provider. “To be a recipient, you have to develop and submit a formal proposal. One example being to register a skills programme with the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO) and to upskill to formal qualification approximately 400 informal traders in the refrigeration sector against the registered skills programmes curriculum. The purpose was to formalise the informal sector to some extent and give them something to assist them with their businesses inclusive of their authorised refrigeration practitioner’s registration. The funding was from the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation together with the South African National Government Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environmental.

“That was at a governmental level and consequently a TVET public service provider would have been their first choice, but none were able to meet the deliverables,” in particular when it came to the development and registration of the skills program with QCTO.