How do we build a workforce equipped with a new generation of skills?

Building sustainable futures: digital skills are essential in an evolving economy

12 October 2020 - 09:41 By Hamilton Ratshefola
Sponsored
The introduction of subjects such as coding and data analytics at primary school level is a progressive step to prepare future generations.
The introduction of subjects such as coding and data analytics at primary school level is a progressive step to prepare future generations.
Image: 123RF/daisy daisy

The SA economy is at a crossroad. As industries are redefined, so too are the types of skills we require.

Digital technologies are fundamentally disrupting the business landscape. We’ve seen regions worldwide experience economic, social and political disruption. Traditional value chains and business models have needed to morph in unexpected ways.

As technology opened the door to new ways of doing business, innovative operating and market strategies contributed to a blurring of industry boundaries and shifting of value chains. With that, traditional job roles have destabilised.  

These dramatic transformations have had a profound effect on the types of workforce skills demanded by various industries. Employers are increasingly crippled by a workforce whose skills have not kept pace with changing requirements. If left unresolved, the skills shortage will have profound effects on economies across the continent as individuals struggle to perform.

As we search for ways to accelerate the country’s economic growth in a post-Covid world, we need to find new and sustainable ways to respond to the skills issue.

The reality is that some jobs will go away, new ones will be created, and all jobs will be forever changed by artificial intelligence (AI). Our available workforce can help accelerate or constrain the country’s economic growth. How we respond will determine whether this evolution either results in sustained economic malaise or economic prosperity.

Traditionally, older generations teach and mentor newer ones. Regarding the fourth industrial revolution, the most urgent question is: how do we build a workforce equipped with a new generation of skills?

Unemployment rates have risen over the past few months and it’s a continuous struggle for young South Africans to find jobs. This, coupled with the pandemic, has also contributed to weakening economies, affecting 2.2-million jobs and calling for businesses to adapt their services even quicker as they scramble to survive.

There is a growing need for urgent measures to match rising youth unemployment, empower SA’s youth and bridge the digital literacy gap, forming a new talent pool to address jobs for the 21st century.

The government set itself the task of pioneering new technologies to take quantum leaps towards ushering in a future digital economy. Correctly so, change needs to be implemented in our schools to prepare young people for jobs of the future. The introduction of subjects such as coding and data analytics at primary school level is a progressive step to prepare future generations.

Our main focus must be on skills education and training programmes designed to prepare students for success in the era of AI, cloud and quantum computing. Initiatives must help career-orientated high school learners and those looking for 21st-century hi-tech apprenticeships.

Over the past few years, we’ve rolled out three big initiatives at IBM, mainly; Digital Nation Africa, Open P-Tech and Skills Build — all designed to give participants insight into the exciting world of information technology, thus changing the way they think and see the world and their careers.

We’re exploring ways of deepening the talent pool and equipping the workforce with the skills that organisations need. Anything we initiate must look at the correlation between the changing economy and skills required to support that evolving economy.

Before any success can be achieved, employers must have confidence in higher education’s ability to solve the skills gap; our high schools must be equipped to adequately prepare students to be productive members of the workforce; higher education institutions must have updated curricula and relevant programmes to keep pace with industry changes; and individuals must be empowered to take on the responsibility of maintaining and developing new skills.

With Digital Nation Africa, we’ve seen first-hand the impact of a platform that offers youth the access to the relevant digital skills in emerging fields including blockchain, cybersecurity, data science, AI and cognitive business. Digital education, focused on workplace learning and skills such as P-Tech, gives learners and teachers access to modules on emerging technologies such as AI, cloud computing and cybersecurity, and courses on professional competencies such as Design Thinking, both leading to free digital badges that students can share on their online résumés.

As we look to individuals to take control of, and responsibility for, their careers and lifelong learning paths, they must be given the tools and opportunities to chart their work future and continuously update skills throughout their life.

About the author: Hamilton Ratshefola is general country manager at IBM SA.

This article was paid for by Mazda.