Time is running out for government and industry to be ready for the new era in workplace learning

The transition to occupational learning qualifications is complicated because it is not just a superficial change from one governmental accreditation authority to another. Photo: Simphiwe Mbokazi / Independent Newspapers.

The transition to occupational learning qualifications is complicated because it is not just a superficial change from one governmental accreditation authority to another. Photo: Simphiwe Mbokazi / Independent Newspapers.

Published May 11, 2024


By Jacomien de Klerk

South Africa's workplace learning environment faces a looming deadline which may catch many industry stakeholders off guard, and it is becoming increasingly clear that many sectors of the economy are simply not ready.

This will have real consequences for everyone involved: unemployed young people, workers, the various sector education and training authorities (SETAs), training organisations, employers, and industry associations.

In 2021, the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande set a deadline of 30 June 2024 to change from SETA-developed qualifications to new workplace learning qualifications. This means that from 1 July, no learners can be registered for any credit-bearing programmes based on legacy qualifications.

A failure to successfully switch to the new occupational qualification framework will have far-reaching implications for those most dependent on workplace learning opportunities, in particular unemployed young people seeking entry into the workforce and workers who want to obtain qualifications and progress in their careers.

If more isn’t done, we can expect a decrease in training from July when training providers can no longer use legacy qualifications for learnership and skills programmes (credit-bearing training) and without there being new occupational qualifications to replace legacy qualifications.

The B-BBEE status of companies might also be negatively affected. With fewer credit-bearing training opportunities available for them to fund, organisations will in all likelihood struggle to achieve targets for skills development spend, which will have consequences for their B-BBEE scorecards.

The Citrus Academy, a non-profit company established and supported by the Citrus Growers’ Association, has been monitoring this situation with concern.

The lack of available occupational qualifications within the agricultural sector will affect access to workplace training for many employers and workers from July this year. In many cases, these are the only learning and development opportunities that people in rural areas can access.

But this is not only going affect the citrus industry, or even just agriculture. It has implications for the entire economy.

The transition to occupational learning qualifications is complicated because it is not just a superficial change from one governmental accreditation authority to another.

The entire approach to training is fundamentally altered.

The new training framework hopes to create a system where learners are equipped for specific jobs through a combination of theory, practice and workplace learning. By matching qualifications to the needs in the labour market, the occupational learning system hopes to directly build a skills pipeline for industry, by making use of occupational qualifications.

Until 2010, the SETAs were responsible for developing qualifications for their economic sectors, which were then registered and delivered by Skills Development Providers (SDPs). Hundreds of qualifications were developed under this system and a great many learnerships and skills programmes were successfully delivered, benefiting thousands of learners.

In 2010, the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO) was established. The purpose of the QCTO was to oversee the design, implementation, assessment and certification of a brand-new kind of qualification – occupational qualifications. These new occupational qualifications would be developed to replace all the old qualifications – now referred to as “legacy” qualifications.

Undoubtedly, there were shortcomings in legacy qualifications. The qualifications sometimes lacked a focus on practical skills that left graduates ill-prepared for the realities of specific jobs. The absence of mandatory workplace experience further hampered job readiness. Learners who were unable to secure a job after completing one qualification, would often return to enrol in learnerships repeatedly, and never enter the job market.

The new occupational learning system offers a compelling alternative, in that qualifications are designed around specific jobs as identified by the Department of Labour through the Organising Framework for Occupations (OFO). Practical and workplace experience becomes an integral part of the learning process, resulting in graduates who are ready to enter the workforce immediately. Under the new framework, the QCTO is responsible for the accreditation of SDPs and the approval of workplaces, although the SETAs will continue to assist training providers and provide quality assurance guidance in their respective sectors. SETAs are also tasked with supporting their sectors in the change to the occupational learning framework and with facilitating the development of occupational qualifications for occupations in their sectors.

However, these truly commendable intentions have not been matched by effective implementation. Slow policy development and funding limitations have meant that the change is behind schedule. New occupational qualifications are developed by request of industry organising forums or associations and requires their direct and active participation. New qualifications must be in line with the requirements of the QCTO and must be approved by them before being submitted to SAQA for registration. In many industries represented by SETAs, unified employer forums do not exist, and even where they do, some industry organisations, particularly those lacking experience or resources, struggle to take on the responsibility of developing the new qualifications.

In some sectors, there are enough qualifications, accredited SDPs and approved workplaces for a smooth transition to occupational learning. In others, there are simply not enough registered qualifications yet. SDPs can also not become accredited, and workplaces cannot be approved before qualifications are developed and registered, as they are accredited and approved for those specific qualifications.

Asking the Minister of Higher Education and Training for an extension of the 30 June 2024 deadline is critical to avoid a potential disaster, but this is not a solution in itself.

The Citrus Academy is calling for a collaborative approach to urgently address the situation. Industry, SDPs and the government must work together to bridge these implementation gaps. Governing bodies such as the QCTO and SETAs need to set clear timelines and enable the transition through making sufficient resources available. Clear and honest communication of arrangements and plans around the transition is critical.

It is time to finally bring everyone on board.

Occupational learning is a positive step for the South African economy. We can navigate these hurdles and emerge with an occupational training system that truly equips its workforce for success in the ever-evolving job market.

This isn't just about improving our current system – it's about building a future where skills development fuels economic growth and empowers individuals to reach their full potential.

De Klerk is the General Manager of the Citrus Academy.