AUTOMOTIVE

No more panic mechanics

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The modern automotive trades need bright, quick-thinking young men and women who are not afraid to work with their hands and their minds at the same time, on complex machines.

Talking to Achiever about the state of skills development in the industry and the creation of a new, skilled workforce, Sean Fenn, General Manager: Training and Development at the Imperial Technical Training Academy (ITTA), says the time when the “dummies” went off to trade school to become mechanics is over.

ITTA, an industry leader in automotive technical training, boasts an extensive network which provides relevant, practical, job-related training nationally for apprentices and artisans in six automotive related trades for the automotive industry. The network provides trade apprenticeship training for more than 900 apprentices currently under training for Imperial companies as well as some of the largest private companies in South Africa. Imperial was voted one of the top companies to work for in the Best Companies survey in 2013/2014.

How do companies go about putting in place the right structures for a learning academy?

Setting up your own training facilities requires a lot of considerations. Imperial’s facilities, like many other corporate training facilities, were born out of a need to ensure the highest quality of training, relevant and up to date with trends, technologies and methodologies. The biggest expenses of running a technical training facility are related to the equipment and technologies required to ensure relevance in training. The quick evolution and change that has taken place in the design and technology arena, associated with “wheels products”, places pressure on the institution to keep pace with what is happening at the workplace coalface. This must be one of the fewest places in the training world where a vehicle engine is treated as a consumable to be stripped over and over again until it is finished and has to be used as a teaching aid. Large centres require at least 10 consumable engines a year, not to mention gearboxes, working vehicle components and vehicles to work on. Companies wishing to set up their own training facilities must be linked to a SETA that will assist them in setting up, provide the necessary guidance and assist with compliance, legislation and accreditation issues. They will either point you in the direction of existing materials that have already been accredited or will form part of the development and accreditation process for training programmes. Return on investment in terms of quality and reputation makes it possible to secure ongoing business investment and to ensure the continued success of the training institutions. Private providers, who do not have corporate beliefs and backup, are feeling the pinch as training spaces have to be upgraded to meet the demands of the new curricula for trades.

What advice do you have for other companies when it comes to ensuring the sustainability of training centres?

This is a bit of a complex question because it speaks to internal support of the business for its training initiatives as well as external profile in society and the industry or sector within which the business operates. Sustainability of a company’s training facilities is directly proportional to the support that the entire company lends to the centre. Our companies ensure that training takes place in the training centres, catering for the internal business needs. The company ethos and attitude towards training is such that we invested R90 million in training initiatives last year to ensure that staff keep pace with the changes in the economic landscape. Up-skilling, reskilling and realigning have become the three essential imperatives of businesses. Externally, particularly at this juncture of the evolution in the country’s trade space, it is imperative that companies have a say in the sector at the highest levels possible. Imperial has been intentional by ensuring that they are at the place where decisions, legislation, or any changes to policies are made. This simple intent ensures that where influence can be brought to ensure relevance of decisions effecting Imperial, it is done so. We work closely with the SETAs, DHET, NAD, QCTO, HRDC Council and other influential bodies in the country to ensure that we have a say in what will eventually have influence on our sector. As industry participates with Government in bringing to bear the kinds of change needed to align the academic outputs of schools, Technical schools and TVET public colleges, the role of training providers may change to that of becoming centres of excellence where safe workplace exposure and work-integrated learning is facilitated by trainers. What is of concern to me is the lack of involvement by a number of large automotive players in the country in these dialogues.

What are the benefits for companies that are proactive in setting up their own skills and learning hubs?

Essentially, businesses have to control the quality of their own training in the face of an education system that has essentially failed to produce the right types of qualified youth for the sector. It is not all bad, since there are elements of our education system that do work well. There are pockets of public schools and colleges, both rural and urban, that work well and produce youth who are able to take their place in society. It is scary to note though, that public schools have diminished in number over the last few years by 40% and private schools have grown by 70%. The ability of training providers to be agile in changing, augmenting or redesigning courses needed by business is not a luxury afforded to the Government colleges. The change process is a long and arduous one, often hampered by academia and well-meaning but over-engineered courses. It is in this space, and with the bureaucratic nature of the business, that private providers excel and are able to give industry approved materials and curricula back to the public sector. There is no doubt that, given the critical state of apprenticeships and trades in South Africa, leading training providers help government transition curricula and help what is essentially our competition become a relevant provider of skilled human capital for industry needs.

Can you please elaborate on the importance of companies being proactive, as opposed to waiting for SETAs or talent finding them?

Precisely because the apprentice value chain is broken in critical areas, industry no longer has the luxury of remaining aloof from the educational system. It is easy to sit at the sidelines and criticise a failed or partially functioning system. It is another thing to put your energy and time into helping transform a system and influencing the outcomes of the collective efforts. Therefore we have committed to being involved in the transformative evolution of the apprentice pipeline with Government, Department of Higher Education and Training, the TVET colleges and SETAs. ITTA currently partners with a number of technical high schools through training assistance, facilities guidance and, in some cases, much-needed tools and equipment. Our involvement, together with funds from the Imperial Ukuhamba community trust, has been with John Orr Technical High School in Johannesburg, Roodepoort High and Dinoto Secondary in Daveyton. In addition, ITTA is engaging with feeder technical highs schools on the East Rand and in Cape Town to promote the trades and provide training, assistance and knowledge guidance to the teachers. Our proactive approach enables relating technical and non-technical schools to make the connection with a specific business that is looking for employable youth for trades. Together, the business and the school can shape the output quality of the youth to meet the rigorous entry criteria of the various trades. This is essentially a simple way of creating quality feeder pipelines into the Training Academies for the various trades offered in the businesses. The SETAs have a similar mandate to assist schools and colleges with career guidance and exposure to the trades through various mechanisms and engagements. The need for business to be proactive, rather than waiting for SETAs to invite them to the table, is critical in providing impetus to the turnaround strategy Government is applying to get youngsters to become tradespeople. Minister Blade Nzimande has gone a great distance in highlighting the dire state of the artisan space and the fact is that becoming an artisan does not mean you are a second-class citizen. The SETAs do direct potential trade entrants to providers they trust, but their mandate, as I understand it, is not to provide the businesses with artisans, but rather to govern and quality-assure the training that take place in a sector. The bottom line is business needs to take care of its own recruitment.

Can you tell us about the lessons ITTA has learnt?

We have learnt four things: Firstly, you have to set your own level of excellence by adopting timeless values and following them rigorously. We adhere to three timeless values of quality, innovation and discipline. They guide how we do things and why we do things from day to day. We drive these values into training and the look and feel of our facilities as an expression of the values. These values go way beyond the expected norms of the SETAs as we feel that someone has to set the bar high, and we want to do that as the leading technical training provider in South Africa. Secondly, good technical trainers who have a heart for teaching are hard to find. We have managed to gather a good group of qualified, passionate trainers, but our concern about succession when they retire is a national concern that has a huge impact on the TVETs, who are trying to change their operations to meet industry demands. Thirdly, you cannot deliver trades training in the manner it was done five, 10 or 20 years ago. The delivery methodology of lessons has to be planned, structured, controlled and pedagogically and methodologically rigorous. The institutional experience has to be akin to attending the old technical college. The one definitive differentiation factor between the various training providers in the future will be the quality and methodology of delivery. We are way ahead of the pack in this regard. We have ex-teachers as managers in two of our centres; they understand the requirements for a true teaching delivery and have shaped the academies accordingly. And lastly: Transparency and the willingness to engage and make a meaningful contribution is what Government is looking for to resolve the current problems. We have gone to the DHET to offer not only the bridging academy for TVETs but also to partner wherever possible, not in money terms but in time and expertise and assistance. Imperial sits on various stakeholder forums, both in Gauteng and the Western Cape, with the aim of influencing and assisting with this change to the artisan space.

What are your greatest challenges?

As with any interconnected system, the weakest parts of it determine the interdependence, cohesiveness and the strength of the system as a whole. The biggest challenges in this overhaul of the artisanal value chain are the industry rivalries and jealousies and the hidden agendas of people within the value chain, public colleges and school systems. Even with an outstretched hand of assistance, various schools and colleges remain focused on their own agendas of making money and putting bums on seats at all costs. Again, this is a bit of a generalisation and not true of all the colleges we partner with in creating meaningful youth ready for trades. There are some very exciting industry and TVET college partnerships that can be replicated around the country with a little effort and commitment. The Ford South Africa and Orbit College collaboration at the Mankwe campus near Sun City is an example of a partnership that produces employable youth for the Ford factories in Pretoria. The Umfolozi College in Richards Bay and the Bell Equipment Partnership are other examples of meaningful collaboration on aligning training at a TVET with industry needs. The second challenge is the withdrawal of grant funding for the training of apprentices at businesses and the shifting of those funds to recapitalise and revive the TVET sector. This has caused a number of businesses to stop training altogether, a bad thing in terms of employability and qualified skills growth in the country. This has been addressed as a blockage to apprentice job creation in the industry and is currently under review with a few ideas on the table. Industry has been involved in this process and the result should be pleasing to all once gazetted.

Tell us about how you have benefited from your relationship with merSETA?

Our Academy has close ties with MerSETA, ETDP Seta, W&R Seta and the Department of Economic Development and Trade in the Western Cape. Each of these relationships has been formed around projects and interventions that focus specifically on the artisan problems in each sector. The partnerships with merSETA have borne fruit for us. Close relationships with merSETA have enabled us to implement and shape our academies as well as work with them on our innovations, such as the online testing and the textbooks and new test banks. Our further partnerships in res-earch and key projects that are mutually beneficial have also cemented our close working relationships.

Lindsay King

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