The culture of employee learning in South Africa: towards a conceptual framework

George Mavunga, Michael Cross

Abstract


The shortage of skills amongst employees in both the private and public sectors in South Africa continues to be a topical issue as exemplified by the continued existence of a list of scarce skills which is published by the Department of Higher Education (DHET). However, the notion that there is a shortage of skills in the country has begun to be challenged with some scholars arguing that the real problem is a jobs shortage attributable to structural inequalities which are a legacy of apartheid and failure by the government post-1994 to address these inequalities. This, we argue, is the reason why unemployment, unemployability and wide workplace inequalities, especially as they affect people from previously disadvantaged groups (mainly women and black employees), persist. We further contend that what is missing from the debates around skills shortage in South Africa and the wider phenomenon to which these debates belong, that is, employee learning, is a holistic conceptualisation of the culture associated with it on the part of the government, employers, workers’ unions and even academia. Conceptualisation of this culture needs to go beyond the government and employer initiatives to the actual process by which employee learning takes place. In other words, it also needs to take into account the employees’ biographies, identities and subjectivities as well as the social interactions which they engage in as they learn in the workplace. We therefore propose a two-tier framework which integrates implications from two theories, that is Human Capital Theory (HCT) and Critical Realism (CR). Implied in HCT is the suggestion that the culture of employee learning is a function of the employer-initiated learning programmes, such as short courses offered by private employee learning service providers, Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) and block-release programmes run by some institutions of higher learning. The basic aim of these forms of learning would be to increase profitability through improved productivity which itself is a result of employees having been equipped with the requisite skills. Using CR, and Bourdieu’s (1986) idea of habitus, we, however, argue that the final architecture of the culture of employee learning is not linear but a complex and multi-layered product of such factors as the employees’ family and educational backgrounds as well as individual and collective agency in addition to the government and employers’ initiatives such as the afore-mentioned short courses. We also draw on Bernstein’s (1996) notion of learning domains to suggest that attention be paid to employees’ lived experiences which also mediate their responses to the government and employee learning initiatives. This would help with aligning government and organisational employee learning initiatives and strategies to the employees’ individual and collective workplace learning aspirations.

Keywords


employee learning; skills shortage; conceptual framework

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Copyright (c) 2017 George Mavunga, Michael Cross

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Journal of Education