The power of learnerships to transform youth employment in South Africa

Learnerships are powerful and effective tools to address two of the greatest challenges for business – a mismatch of skills between what is taught at higher and tertiary education level versus what is needed by industry, and a lack of practical work experience.  The age-old quandary still plays out today – employers want people to walk in with skills and knowledge and hit the ground running and be immediately productive. Young people need a practical learning ground to gain meaningful and valued on-the-job experience that employers so highly value.

South Africa faces a unique dilemma – a high unemployment rate, eye-wateringly so at more than 40% among the youth, and at the same time, a shortage of skilled and qualified people to fill positions in many industries. It’s a looming socio-economic catastrophe no matter which angle you view it from. This is where learnerships play a pivotal role, and where businesses can make a fundamental difference by investing into growing and developing the practical skills and theoretical knowledge needed in their industry sector and businesses, while radically changing the youth unemployment trajectory.

A learnership is a structured programme, typically over 12-24 months, during which time the learner will undergo theoretical and on-the-job training, thereby learning practical skills in the workplace directly related to a specific occupation or field of work – from engineering, to insurance to business process outsourcing.  It is a work-based learning programme that leads to a registered qualification on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), and which is managed by the relevant Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs). Learnerships are unique to South Africa and were introduced by government to help upskill learners and to prepare them for the workplace, as well as transform skills development and education in South Africa.

Learnerships bridge the gap between the current education provided, versus what is needed by the labour market and employers. They are central to skills upliftment in South Africa and in bringing young people onto the employment ladder and into solid career and employment trajectories.

The benefits for employers and learners are ample.  In a country like South Africa where almost 50% of the employable population are sitting without jobs, the support and participation of government and the private sector in addressing the youth unemployment crisis cannot be overstated. Investing in learnerships and providing employment for trained learners once they have completed their studies is one of the best ways to make a meaningful impact on South Africa’s youth unemployment crisis – and it’s an economic and social imperative!

Benefits for employers

  • Learnerships are developed by the industry so the skills sets and outcomes are aligned to the requirements of the specific occupation, industry and businesses operating in the sector. Companies can also engage with the learnership training provider to customise the learning programmes to meet the specific requirements of the workplace. Learnerships create well-rounded candidates who have a good grasp of all the work processes.
  • Companies that provide learnership opportunities have a great opportunity to build up the skills pool not only for their businesses, but for the broader industry sector. This is good for long term planning, productivity and community upliftment.
  • The credibility of qualifications that are registered on the NQF means that employers have the assurance that learners can demonstrate the competence reflected in their qualifications. It now means that learners now have the theoretical knowledge and on-the-job experience to ‘hit the ground running’ to coin a phrase.
  • Employees are learning new skills and knowledge and will be applying them in the workplace, which means improved work standards, productivity and quality of work for companies.
  • For companies offering learnerships, there are significant tax rebates and achievement of important employment equity objectives, more so for companies who then provide ongoing employment (absorption) of learners once the learnerships are completed. Learnerships earn points on the BEE Scorecard under both Employment Equity and Skills Development and there is a SARS Tax Rebate if the learnership is a registered learnership with the Department of Labour and the agreement is registered with the relevant SETA. This Tax Rebate is calculated per learner – a learnership for a disabled learner could translate into a R100k tax rebate for a 12-month learnership. There is an opportunity to make skills levy contributions work for the benefit of the company, its people and the communities in which it operates.

Benefits for Learners

  • Job prospects are imminently better with sound theoretical and practical occupation-specific training backed by a nationally recognised qualification. If completed successfully, a learnership leads to the awarding of an NQF-registered qualification, which is recognised nationally. For millions, this is a way to achieve a formal qualification since tertiary education at university or technical/FET college remains out of reach for so many who simply cannot afford the tuition costs.
  • For learners there is the fixed-term employment contract for the duration of the learnership, which often results in permanent employment upon completion if they have performed well and the company is in a position to offer ongoing employment. At the very least, there is far greater opportunity within the broader industry sector with a qualification and job experience.
  • There is an opportunity to become a lifelong learner, and constantly upgrade and widen skills sets and knowledge. It makes excellent business sense for the employee and employer!
  • The learner receives an allowance/stipend for the duration of the learnership which helps significantly with costs such as transport, meals and so on, while they learn.

Investing in growing South Africa’s BPO sector through learnerships

South Africa’s Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector is a rapidly growing industry and in high demand of skilled people. South Africa was recently ranked the second most preferred Global BPO offshore destination in 2020 for the third consecutive year and the BPO sector is primed to employ 500 000 people in the next 10 years according to Business Process Enabling South Africa (BPESA). The sector is a significant contributor to GDP.  It is also an industry willing to invest in training and developing young, committed people from being inexperienced to masters of their craft.

SA Business School is a SETA-accredited training provider within Alefbet Holdings focused on management development, learnerships and bespoke training development and delivery serving the broader BPO industry. A significant differentiator of the learnerships provided by SA Business School for the BPO sector is the introduction of an ‘executive edge’ to its learnership training formula.

In the BPO sector, it’s all about providing academic, technical and interpersonal skills training that enable people to develop their career paths from call centre agent to senior management positions and across different job roles and disciplines within a BPO business. Fundamental to anyone operating in a customer-driven environment like BPO is the mastery of so-called ‘softer’ skills such as empathy, and the high EQ needed to work with people in a pressured environment.

It’s one of the reasons why we overlay an executive training approach into our learnership programmes to provide our graduates with a holistic and superior SETA-accredited BPO qualification. Besides the theoretical and practical aspects, we also put them through an Enneagram programme which is a powerful tool for personal self-knowledge, self-mastery, conflict resolution, team dynamics, leadership and developing emotional intelligence. Learners also undergo a comprehensive self-assessment with the Future Fit Academy’s Future Fit Index which assesses their level of effectiveness in the 15 critical skills needed to be effective now, and in the future world of work.  Typically, these types of tools and training would only be available at an executive management level for people with years of work experience.  However, we believe that grasping these skills at an early stage in career development is fundamental to guiding and shaping young people starting out on the learnership path. It enables them to take better control of their career path and progression, earlier on, by understanding their personal motivational drivers, their current behavioural skills sets versus what is needed in the future world of work, and then to develop and fill any gaps.  It’s this holistic approach to learnerships that sees our graduates strive towards being skilled, competent and well-rounded contributors to South Africa’s economy, work force and communities in which they live and work. The skills and experience they derive in such a learnership environment are applicable in virtually every business and industry.

There can be no more powerful tool to tackle South Africa’s alarming youth unemployment crisis, than by businesses investing in learnerships. It is good for business, for industry, for the economy, and most fundamentally, good for learners, their families and their communities in breaking out of a vicious cycle of hardship, unemployment and poverty.

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