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When 94.7 FM’s Darren Whackhead Simpson made a prank call to Multichoice’s call centre, it was i­Fundi learner Dikeleti Seleko who remained unrattled and handled the call with poise.

Stefan Lauber, the Managing Director of i-Fundi says: “We are very proud of her. She proves what over half of South African contact centres already know, namely that learnerships are a great way to develop quality people. Learners are an ideal solution for even the most challenging positions, such as those in the digital broadcasting industry.”
Despite the current recession it is difficult to recruit good contact centre agents. In the past, companies could attract good call centre agents by offering better hourly rates, a costly and often short term solution that lasted only until another company offered more money. However, in the wake of the economic downturn, good quality agents are putting down roots and are staying with their employers.
This does leave a small pool of experienced agents but they come at a price that may prove higher than simply a hike in the salary bill. Lauber warns that many experienced agents who are currently available in the job market are a liability as they often come with bad habits from their previous jobs. Therefore, he says the best solution is to use learnerships that bring highly motivated personnel into the company at a fraction of the cost.
While some companies opt to recruit inexperienced call centre agents directly into the call centre environment, this approach is more costly than learnerships and it often takes longer before agents become productive members of the team. Supported by government incentives, learnerships, on the other hand, offer up to one month of free initial training that is geared to making personnel productive once they enter the workplace.
“Learnerships can be awarded to people within the company or to individuals who are unemployed. People who have suffered through a period without work often prove highly motivated as they do not wish to return to the ranks of the unemployed. They appreciate the opportunity they are being given and know that at the end of the programme they will have a nationally recognised certificate. Learners are individuals who are prepared to work for less and willing to make a real investment in their future,” Lauber says.
A learner typically earns around R1 500 a month compared to a usual entry level salaries of about R4 500, yet their long-term prospects are excellent. He points out that contact centre learners are making a smart move and setting their feet on a real career path. Agents can advance up the salary ladder to a point where they become top managers and can earn more than professionals such as lawyers and with the assistance of i-Fundi they can go on to obtain masters degrees.
Ensuring that call centre agents are the right people with the right training is crucial as ineffective agents can prove costly in terms of lost reputation and customer satisfaction. Although learners are often new to the world of contact centres, they are amongst the best employees because they are motivated and receive extensive training.
Selecting people for learnerships is no easy task as advertisements usually result in literally thousands of applications and only around five to ten percent are appropriate for consideration as potential call centre agents. Where required, i-Fundi works closely with recruitment agencies and clients to develop a shortlist of potential candidates. This allows i-Fundi’s clients to focus their attention on a smaller pool to identify those candidates that will have the best fit with their corporate and operational cultures.
During their month of upfront training learners are exposed to areas such as life and reasoning skills, customer service, and communication skills. These skills provide a solid foundation that quickly puts learners on a par with experienced agents. “Typically, they outperform normal agents,” Lauber says.
On an industry wide basis over 50% of call centres have tried learnerships and over 80% of these companies report a positive experience. i-Fundi is the learnership partner of choice for many of South Africa’s leading contact centres.
Having been the first to implement contact centre learnerships, it has developed systems and processes that give it the ability to significantly improve on the general industry experience. “We meet the 100-90- 80-70 standard. 100% of projects are completed on time and in accordance with the parameters set by SETAs and our clients. 90% of learners are retained, which is better than the attrition rate of most contact centres. In addition, of the people who start on our programmes, 80% acquire national certification and 70% find permanent positions with their host employers,” Lauber points out.
i-Fundi is a results driven company and a major reason for its success is the company’s i-FundiWorx methodology which won the award for the best non-technical innovation at the recent BPeSA awards.
i-FundiWorx focuses on three main components:
  • Getting the right things done correctly so that work is carried out as effectively as possible and a standardised implementation of agreed best practices is ensured.
  • A highly effective monitoring system tracks student progress and alerts management to any implementation problems and triggers corrective action.
  • And, i-Fundi’s proprietary evaluation tool tracks each project’s impact and return on investment, thus ensuring that training leads to clearly measurable performance improvements.
The cost to company of learnerships is very attractive once employers understand the approach and the rebates that can be accessed. Not only do learners typically earn a third of standard industry entry level salaries during their first year but sponsoring companies are also often able to obtain government funding.
“While companies may be put off by the idea of weaving their way through the red tape, i-Fundi has a lot of experience in this area. We help clients with their applications – dealing with any compliance issues – and taking them through the entire the process. It is our speciality and it significantly reduces the host employer’s administrative burden,” according to Lauber.
However, this is not the end of the trail as companies can also enjoy huge tax breaks; R50 000 per annum for existing staff learnerships; R60 000 for currently unemployed people; and up to R100 000 when companies are prepared to employ disabled individuals.“Very often the tax breaks alone cover the learnership’s salary costs,” Lauber says.
Learnerships also strengthen a company’s position in the marketplace, clearly demonstrating its commitment to South Africa’s transformation. A company can earn a full fifteen percent of its Broadbased Black Economic Empowerment score if five percent of its workforce are learners.
“Everyone wins with learnerships. Learners get decent work, companies find better staff, customers enjoy good service and South Africa as a whole benefits,” Lauber concludes.