President Jacob Zuma has announced a R2,4bn initiative beginning this month to encourage companies to train people instead of retrench them. But will it work? A key question has to be: who will do the training and how good will it be?
We all know stories of human resources managers who cram all and sundry into ill-considered courses at year-end because they don't want to lose next year's training budget. Billions are spent and sometimes wasted on inappropriate training. With just 70 companies spending R4bn on training in 2007 alone, according to science & technology minister Naledi Pandor, more careful thought must be given to how this spend is allocated.
This is not a call for more government intervention; quite the contrary, excellence determines who or what survives. But it is essential managers assess individuals sent on training a month afterwards and again within six months or a year after the course.
If the knowledge attained is not being appropriately applied in the workplace then the company needs to consider whether the fault lies with the training provider, the shared knowledge within a team, the personal motivation of the individual or the quality of management in that department. Not enough attention is given to management failures around deciding who is sent on what course.
But there is more: the donor agency for the Zuma funds, the commission for conciliation, mediation & arbitration, is already overwhelmed. Its processes are slow - whether any government agency has the capacity to respond quickly to the job-loss crisis is moot. Learnerships and skills levies exist but many companies complain of rampant bureaucracy.
Training instead of laying off makes sense. Toyota is using short work weeks to retrain staff. Absa is ensuring every staffer gets at least 20 days' training a year. Edcon sends all staff to at least a week of training a year.
There isn't a nation in the world that can afford to say: "Our people are adequately educated." Technology and knowledge gains are too vigorous for that. In Ireland two years ago the government decided to double the country's skills base: it knows that works - its success as the world's second-wealthiest nation until recently owed much to excellent and free education. We're battling to get education right first time.
In SA there are serious problems with the application of knowledge. There are three primary issues: the quality of the training, poor self-motivation and accountability, and appropriate management supervision.
The Council for Scientific & Industrial Research, which allots 12% of its budget to human capital development, has an independent organisation do pre- and post-assessment of anyone going on a course to evaluate how well that person understands what they are learning and how effectively they are applying that knowledge at work.
There is a need for better evaluation of the training and more independent assessment of the match between an individual and the course. We often find there is a haphazard approach - a receptionist in a financial management course, for example - which means the participant becomes frustrated and a precious training budget gets wasted. Such assessments will improve skills education and result in a more engaged and productive workforce, from management down.
Zuma's administration is giving cause for optimism with measures designed to combat failures in delivery - for example, a reassessment of auditing in municipalities and unannounced visits to conflict areas. Such leadership will rapidly percolate, if it persists, to all levels in the public and private sectors. It may provide the boost we need to lagging skills application and productivity and more thoughtful performance management.
Van Wyk is founder and CEO of skills training organisations AstroTech and BizTech