BEE and the moral dilemma

Implementing learnerships should never be an exercise in box-ticking.

The whole thing about learnerships, according to Sivarajan Naidoo, director at EduPower, is that nobody is really accountable for ensuring that they’re implemented to provide maximum value for the learner.

He goes on to clarify what he means by this: “The whole concept of learnerships was created by the Skills Development Levies Act of 1999. The Act regulates a compulsory levy scheme to fund education and training in businesses within various sectors. While the Act and the SETAs (Sector Education and Training Authorities) lay out various guidelines and policies around the governance of learnerships, the ultimate aim of any learnership is to prepare unemployed people for the world of work or to upskill people who are already employed. And this is where they frequently come unstuck.”

Learnerships are designed to provide the learner with both a theoretical and practical component, with 30% of the 12-month learnership spent in an academic environment, with the remaining 70% of the year used to implement those learnings in a workplace environment.

“In order to meet the requirements for the learnership and achieve a qualification, the learner needs to complete a set number of notional hours at the rate of 10 hours per credit. Notional hours are the estimated learning time taken by the average student to achieve the specified learning outcomes of the learnership programme.”

Employed vs unemployed
While the exact same requirements are applied to learnerships for the employed and unemployed, the intent differs slightly. “Learnerships for the unemployed are aimed at introducing people to the workplace and how things operate there. For instance, much of the South Africa’s labour legislation also applies to learnership candidates, and as of January this year, the national minimum wage also applies for these learners. For the unemployed, the workplace experience component is crucial to prepare the learner for the world of work. The hope is that at the end of the 12 month period, the employer will be able to offer the person a permanent job. If not, the learner now has a good track record of employability and will hopefully find work elsewhere.”

B-BBEE has added a whole new dimension to learnerships for unemployed learners as it introduces an absorption component, encouraging companies to absorb the learners at end of the 12 months, thereby increasing their chances of employment. However, cautions Naidoo, there is also a negative aspect in that some employers choose to outsource the training of people with disabilities or the unemployed, and they don’t always properly manage the quality roll-out of the learnership.

“It is so important that companies sponsoring learnerships manage the quality of that learnership’s delivery. We’ve seen instances where host employees don’t give the learners the right kind of work experience, for example. In some cases they are simply ticking a box on paperwork that reflects the deliverables in terms of the B-BBEE scorecard.”

Learners that are hosted on third party sites must get proper workplace experience; they must be treated properly in terms of the country’s labour regulations and the learner must be employable at the end of the period.

It’s perfectly acceptable for a manufacturing plant, for example, to host learners with disabilities at a third-party site, but the onus is on the sponsoring company to ensure that the individual is receiving the quality of learning and training that prepares them for the workplace. Deploying learnerships for the unemployed and people with disabilities can be used as a money-making opportunity (for the training provider) or to improve a company’s B-BBEE ranking, with the learners not receiving the full skills development benefit, although the paper trail appears to meet all of the learnership criteria.

It’s difficult for the SETAs to police the above-mentioned fraudulent activities as thousands of learnerships are being run countrywide and they simply don’t have the capacity. “What would work,” says Naidoo, “Is some sort of partnership with the hosting businesses to ensure that quality learning is taking place. If the SETAs, the Department of Higher Education and the Department of Labour collaborated, either formally or informally, they could ensure that the unemployed and people with disabilities are getting the right level of workplace experience.”

Learnership deliverables are very clearly defined. They all specify notional hours, assessments and moderation, all of which is recorded in a portfolio of evidence logbook. It is largely dependent on the assessor and moderator to check on the quality of workplace experience. They also need to establish if the portfolio of evidence is simply completed for convenience or if it’s a true reflection of the learner’s workplace experience. “There’s an ethical code of conduct that goes beyond simply checking a paper trail, to ensure that the workplace is providing what it claims to,” says Naidoo.

With employed learners, the situation is somewhat different. These learnerships are either hosted by company that’s sponsoring the learner or by the SETA, but there are other challenges. Legislation makes it clear that learnerships require a 70-30 split in terms of workplace experience and classroom learning. However, employers can find it challenging to release workers to go into the classroom because that impacts on their production capacity. “Unfortunately, we find that some companies rely on training providers who are able to significantly reduce the classroom component of the learnership in the interests of productivity. This is not to the learner’s advantage.

“The company’s capacity planning needs to allow for the classroom component instead of trying to fast-track learners through the academic component.”

Creating business owners
Another interesting fact highlighted by Naidoo is that B-BBEE is not prescriptive in terms of which sector the learnership must fall under. Companies are free to sponsor learnerships outside of their sector. This opens the door for companies in one sector to sponsor learnerships in others that may ultimately be more useful to the individual. “The main thing is to provide the person with the greatest possible likelihood of finding employment,” says Naidoo.

This includes learnerships that prepare people to run their own businesses. There are simply not enough employment opportunities to accommodate South Africa’s unemployed. Part of the B-BBEE scorecard allows for enterprise development and supplier development, both of which encourage entrepreneurship. “When companies embark on this type of sponsored learnership, they need to adopt a strong mentorship role to help the individual to build a credible and sustainable business.   A learnership can only get the person so far, entrepreneurs also require support, seed capital and mentorship. One of the biggest causes of SMMEs failing is poor cashflow management and the only way to get around that is mentorship.”

While learnerships provide an academic route towards understanding how a business is meant to be run, small companies and start-ups also require a practical component in the form of mentorship. Large corporates can also use these people as suppliers and help to make them more sustainable; they’re basically training their own suppliers. Bonus points can be achieved on the B-BBEE scorecard when a large corporate takes on an SME that was unrelated to its business and converts them into a supplier.

“The B-BBEE legislation aims to produce sustainable small business by establishing partnerships between large corporates and small businesses. The development of small business underpins the recovery of our economy. It’s unrealistic to expect current businesses to be able to employ the country’s unemployed; this growth has to come from small businesses.”

Naidoo concludes, “While the SETAs are very clear about what learnerships are intended to achieve, the responsibility falls on business, training providers and learners to apply the spirit of the legislation instead of looking for ways and means to get around the legal requirements and simply tick boxes. The intention is to upskill an unemployed nation. While there are legal loopholes that need to be closed, this also requires ethical behavior from all parties. Businesses need to invest in genuine transformation, even if it’s outside of their business. And you can’t legislate for that, it requires a corporate culture change. We need to do away with professional learners, with box-ticking training providers and disengaged sponsor companies.”

Article written by Alison Job for ITWeb