Corporates have a critical role in building an employable workforce


Post-1994, SA evolved what are widely viewed as fine education policies focusing on universal access and completion of primary and secondary education. A Stats SA report indicates that by 2018 nearly 99% of children aged 6 to 13 and 96% of those aged 14 to 17 attended school. But the pandemic spotlighted massive cracks in the system ignored since ’94, as overcrowded, under-resourced poorer schools battled with basic requirements of social distancing and access to running water (more than a quarter of the schools in some regions have none, notes Amnesty International South Africa).

Existing inequalities in schools grew wider, as previously white Model C and private schools transitioned to online learning, and neglected rural and township schools slipped. Much has been of made online learning. But as Amnesty reports, just 22% of households in SA have a computer and 10% an internet connection. ‘The pandemic has made a broken and unequal system even worse, putting students from poorer communities at a huge disadvantage,’ says its executive director Shenilla Mohamed.

As we prepare for a ‘new normal’ in a time of waves of COVID and climate-change-related threats, focus must be on addressing these structural issues – and what is taught in these schools and at tertiary level. ‘To address the challenges of skills provision and acquisition, policymakers and researchers have set their sights on the vocational education and training system,’ says Stephanie Allais of the Centre for Researching Education and Labour at Wits University. Yet few vocational colleges have the facilities needed for online learning, and not many students have the educational background that makes it seamlessly possible. SA needs to prioritise ‘supporting institutions, building partnerships with employers, and ensuring that thinking about skills is incorporated into industrial policy processes’. Most importantly, ‘skills policy needs to be in line with an economic recovery focused on jobs’.

This is especially crucial in light of the record number of learners dropping out since the pandemic: as many as 750 000, against 230 000 in 2018, according to the fifth National Income Dynamics Study-Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey. Most are in grades 8 and 9. Reasons range from the closure of schools in early lockdown, then the introduction of rotational learning when some lost interest and fell behind, to families being unable to afford fees, and an explosion in teen pregnancies. Civil society activists responded with a suggestion to the Department of Basic Education of a drop-out prevention plan, where street committees and churches help trace missing learners, and regular discussions are held on care and support in schools. And the longer it takes to get learners back in class, the less likely they are to return, says Connie Haasbroek of Unisa’s department of psychology of education. She urges that vocational education be integrated from early on, teaching learners decision-making and critical-thinking skills. Schools should surely be using every opportunity to teach these and simple survival skills: how to grow food; use mobile-phone technology to access reading and learning material; generate revenue by selling products they create at home; and showcase marketable skills, from sewing to plastering. To navigate the immediate crisis, we could look to India, which together with the private sector is providing vocational training to school drop-outs in sponsored, demand-driven short training courses based on ‘employable skills’. Or to Nigeria, where WAVE (West Africa Vocational Education) recruits candidates through a ‘cutting-edge’ testing process, trains them in ‘essential employability skills’, and helps them secure jobs.

The challenge for those in vocational training and wanting to go into formal apprenticeships to register as artisans is getting job experience, says Gideon Potgieter, Resolution Circle CEO.

The private sector has a critical role to play. Initiatives where corporates commit to taking interns are making a difference, but more companies need to participate, even if they can offer only one or two positions. What can we learn from the current state of education to safeguard our children’s and country’s future?

By Glynis Horning