Digital upskilling cannot be a gradual process. It requires a fundamental, economy-wide programme to equip our country for the future, writes Huawei South Africa CEO Spawn Fan.
As the practical and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic become clear, we are seeing that digitising processes will be an indispensable part of the new business environment. To function in this new era, ICT skills will be indispensable – for organisations, for individuals, and for society.
Unfortunately, South Africa’s ICT talent pool is far smaller than it needs to be if we are to meet these social needs as the economy recovers.
According to enterprise and market theory, enterprises exist because they can improve the efficiency of resource allocation. Remote and digital management optimises internal and external process, and thus reduces costs.
Outside the enterprise, market interaction is strengthened through ecommerce and cloud processes. Enterprises can also boost global collaboration across regions through remote engagement. Digitalisation is thus an efficiency strategy, and its business benefits will far outlast its undoubted safety advantages.
STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is the key to tooling up for this new-look economy. Sadly, STEM remains woefully under-resourced. We need significant new investments and mechanisms for upskilling and reskilling in the digital and ICT space. The skills required will be technical, but also soft skills, the deeply human “EQ” abilities that remain critical for interacting in a digital economy.
Reflecting the shortage of such skills, the 2019 JCSE-IITPSA ICT Skills Survey found that across sectors, SETA authorities identified digital and ICT roles as Hard-To-Fill vacancies. The report notes that on the Career Junction jobs portal, IT as a sector was highest in the demand table at over 30% vacancy level (Career Junction, 2019).
This is not just a local phenomenon. The EU has been anticipating a shortage of around 756 000 ICT professionals by this year, according to the European Commission.
The skills gap
Bridging the digital skill gap needs a holistic, constant and systematic approach. Even existing ICT professionals must be constantly upskilled.
In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, this need for upskilling will become ever more urgent for companies. For policy-makers, reskilling and retraining the existing workforce are essential levers to fuel future economic growth, enhance societal resilience and pave the way for future-ready education systems for the next generation of workers.
Against this retraining environment, the youth must certainly also be encouraged to follow formal, ICT-related studies and equip themselves with digital skills to be more employable.
A third component of the drive to narrow the skills gaps is more easily ignored. It involves sensitising ordinary citizens about the importance of digital skills and popularising the idea of having basic digital skills. Once being digitally skilled is something to aspire to, when being a tech geek becomes cool, we can look forward to a digitally motivated future.
Our young people must become agents of their own digital empowerment, so they not only consume content and ideas produced by others but create their own ideas for life-changing opportunities. This is critical to unleash the potential of every South African.
This reskilling is not cheap, but it is quantifiable, and it should be a social imperative.
A recent report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) noted that 1.37 million US workers would be displaced from their roles in the next decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, it found that they could be reskilled for similar, higher-wage roles at a cost of $34 billion, or $24 800 per displaced worker.
With an investment of US$19.9 billion, the US government could reskill 77% of its workers displaced by technology into growing jobs while generating more taxes and lower welfare payments.
Initiatives on the ground
Conscious of this need to enhance South Africa’s ICT ecosystem on every front, Huawei is deeply invested in several initiatives.
In our work with telecom operators, Huawei offers training to more than 400 engineers every year from the workforce of our clients to help them upskill and become the best ICT professionals they can be.
Huawei sows the seeds of ICT among the youth by hosting or sponsoring ICT competitions, Seeds for the Future training exchange trips to China, the Huawei ICT Jobs Fair, and the Huawei ICT Academy. For instance, more than 40 universities and TVET colleges have been certified as Huawei ICT Academies to offer Huawei ICT certification training programs to students. These programmes are more important than ever, as we celebrate Youth Month in June.
We also believe in promoting ICT literacy among the general public. Recent examples of this have been a 5G workshop for the Department of Telecommunications, a 5G webinar and ongoing cloud computing training for women.
Building an IT consciousness has to start early, and Huawei’s Tech4All digital inclusion project in South Africa looks to teach digital and literacy skills at a young age through our DigiSchool project in partnership with operator rain and educational non-profit organisation Click Foundation, aiming to connect 100 urban and rural primary schools over the next year.
When starting early, it’s useful to use methods that resonate with young people. We have found that using the culture of storytelling is a powerful way to teach the youth about the latest technologies.
One such example is a collaboration between graphic novelist and storyteller Chief Nyamweya of Kenya, and blockchain educator and investor Anne Connelly is a graphic novel about a young Kenyan woman who uses blockchain to transform the world around her.
As former South African president Nelson Mandela once said, “sometimes, it falls upon a generation to be great”, in the digital/information era, it will be the responsibility of the coming generation to rise to greatness.
As a sector and as a society, we must work to enable this, to allow this greatness to blossom, by providing ICT and digital skills for all who need them. When we help our people become great, our country becomes great.