Aligning to an imperfect model

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The new occupational qualification model has brought it's own set of challenges and Suzanne Hattingh highlights six major concerns about the structure while offering some recommendations to employers and training providers on how to approach it.


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By Suzanne Hattingh
My recent experience of the negative impact of the implementation of the QCTO qualification model in a large financial institution prompted me to write this article to warm employers and training providers to approach this model with caution.
The article highlights six major concerns about the occupational qualification model: the fragmentation of learning, difficulties around work experience, challenges relating to employer involvement, the high cost of implementation, the inevitable confusion and disruption resulting from the changes, and the over reliance on consultants. The article ends with recommendations to employers and training providers on how to approach the new model.
Fragmentation of learning
The QCTO qualification model correctly recognises the three components of occupational competence, i.e. conceptual knowledge/theory, practical/applied knowledge and skills, and work experience. However, separating them into three different unit standards in occupational qualifications will inevitably lead to fragmentation. These unit standards will generally be delivered by at least two entities, a training provider and an employer - and possibly a third provider specialising in practical skills training. Employers could follow the route of the above-mentioned financial institution by abdicating their responsibility for work experience to training providers, but providers are not really equipped to fulfil this role. It will be more difficult with this model to achieve the desired integrated learning experience that translates theory into practice to build occupational competence.
Difficulties in obtaining work experience
The intention of occupational qualifications is to improve employability, and therefore work experience unit standards have been made a pre-requisite for obtaining occupational qualifications. However, this could have negative consequences, particularly for learners from disadvantaged communities. The difficulties currently experienced in finding employers willing to provide learners with work experience are likely to continue. Ms Percy Moleke, Deputy Director General of the Department of Higher Education and Training, stated at a recent workshop (to discuss the problems facing youth who are not in employment or in education and training) that around 20,000 learners from FET colleges cannot complete their qualifications because they cannot complete the required work experience. Occupational qualifications will exacerbate this problem. Large numbers of learners will end up in a vicious circle: they cannot find employment because they do not have a qualification, but because they cannot complete the work experience unit standards, they cannot obtain an occupational qualification.
Challenges relating to employer involvement
It is unrealistic to expect employers to take responsibility for learners to complete a component of a qualification. It is not their business. While large employers may have the motivation and internal capacity to provide and assess the prescribed work experience, it is unlikely that smaller employers will be willing and/or able to meet the requirements in the curriculum specifications for the work experience unit standards. This will reduce the number of opportunities for learners to gain work experience, especially in rural areas, smaller towns and poorer areas where there is little economic activity and few employers willing to undertake this responsibility.
High cost of implementation
The re-alignment of training programmes and skills development processes to the new qualification model will escalate the cost of occupational training for employers and providers. This will mean that less money will be spent on the actual development of skills to address the skills shortages in our country. Direct costs will be incurred in redesigning qualifications, developing curricula in the new format, re-aligning existing training programmes, as well as rewriting and reprinting learning materials. Money will have to be spent on things like retraining facilitators and assessors to work with new model, capacity building of staff to oversee and assess work experience unit standards, accreditation of workplaces, and redesigning IT systems to capture data in new categories, etc. Money for training is a scarce resource that should be wisely used. It is doubtful that the additional costs will translate into significant improvements in skills levels, or that it will increase the number of people who are trained, or that it will increase employment levels.

We already have existing training models that promote the integration of theory and practice in apprenticeships, learnerships and internships. There are also many other programmes that effectively combine theoretical training with a strong workplace application component, such as those delivered by business schools and other quality providers. If implemented appropriately, such programmes enable learners to apply what they have learnt from the training provider in the actual work context. It is regrettable that the consultants who developed the QCTO model did not explore ways of adapting existing models to improve the workplace application of learning, but chose to develop a more complicated and costly model, that creates articulation challenges with existing qualifications on the NQF.
Confusion and disruption resulting from changes to the existing system
After many years, we have now reached a point where training providers, learners and employers really understand the NQF, and are able to work with unit standards and qualifications within the current system in a way that achieves the intended benefits. Introducing the major changes associated with the new qualification model - no matter how sophisticated or conceptually sound it may be - will inevitably result in much confusion, misunderstanding and disruption of training and skills development processes, resulting in delays in the delivery of much needed training. We must accept that it will take time for the new model to be fully accepted by stakeholders, and for it to be fully operational. This is time that we do not have due to the urgency to address the country?s skills needs.
Reliance on consultants to guide alignment
The QCTO was established to streamline processes for building occupational competence so that it would promote the implementation of programmes that address labour market needs and encourage employer commitment to training. Unfortunately, the occupational qualifications model is more complex, and employers and providers will resort to consultants with expertise in the QCTO model to guide their alignment to the new requirements. The QCTO is the consultant?s dream; it was developed by consultants and relies heavily on consultants for development and implementation. This again will increase the cost of implementing QCTO requirements, and divert funds away from the learners who should be the main beneficiaries of money earmarked for skills development. If the system is so complex that we need to rely on consultants to guide our alignment, we must simplify it so that we spend money for training where it is most needed.
Recommendations to employers and training providers
? It is not compulsory to align all current training to the new qualifications model. You can continue using existing delivery models such as skills programmes, learnerships/apprenticeships, internships, and the qualifications currently registered on the NQF, and even training that is not aligned to the NQF - where these address identified skills needs.
? Take a cautious approach and wait before making costly mistakes in re-aligning all your training to the new qualification model. There is no act or regulation that mandates the re-alignment of all workplace-related training to the new qualification model.
? If you do decide to follow the new qualifications model, don?t align all your training to it. Start on a small scale to test how you can make it work to address specific needs. Keep what currently works and carefully select areas where you see benefits in working with the new model.
? Continue to improve the return on investment on training through recognised processes for ensuring quality learning, such as designing programmes that promote occupational competence, providing opportunities for the practical application of learning in the workplace, and mentoring/coaching processes to improve the transfer of learning in the workplace.

Suzanne Hattingh is an HRD specialist and co-author of Staff development guide for employers and other publications on skills development and learnerships. for more information email her at [email protected]

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