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BusinessDay: Apply here for future jobs

By Johan Steyn, 5 October 2021

SA is on technological back foot and has much to do to leapfrog into what future will require.

“Apply here to be trained for jobs that do not yet exist.” Imagine reading that in your local high school brochure. The facilities are world class and the classrooms are staffed by top-rated teachers, skilled in science and technology.

Imagine further that SA can produce some of the best future-skills training facilities, resulting in scientists, doctors and computer engineers who are the admiration of the developing world.

Is this too utopian? I fear that it is, but I will not be told that it cannot be possible. In the 2021 Africa Global Business Services (GBS) benchmarking and market report by research firm Knowledge Executive, it was highlighted that SA is a prime destination for the business outsourcing sector.

A month ago we read the news that 900 new call centre and support jobs will be created in Durban. Metro, a US firm, partnered with CareerBox and CCI SA in an initial business process outsourcing (BPO) deal.

The local BPO sector is aiming to create 500,000 jobs over the next two years. Andy Searle, CEO of Business Process Enabling SA (BPESA), was earlier quoted saying that about 70,000 locals are now working for international BPO clients.

On the one hand, there is a huge demand for BPO services, and SA — because of our cultural and language diversity — is a sought-after destination. On the other hand, there is a huge skills gap, the so-called digital divide, and a lack of internet connectivity. Therein lies the conundrum facing us.

Last week saw the publication of the 2021 ICT skills survey by Wits University’s Joburg Centre for Software Engineering in partnership with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals SA. It highlights the dilapidated state of education locally, especially in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

It reports that there are several initiatives by business and societal organisations to address these issues, but these are often not co-ordinated and are a drop in the ocean compared to the large challenge around the underlying issues of appropriate curricula and skilled teachers.

Despite the initial hype from last year’s report about the presidential commission on the fourth industrial revolution, the government, and in particular the department of communications & digital technologies, faces a huge task ahead.

Our country is on the technological back foot and we have much to do together to leapfrog into what the immediate future will require of us. We should focus not only on current skills demand and appropriate training and education, but concurrently focus on future skills demand.

The smart technology era, underpinned by artificial intelligence and machine cognition, has the potential to displace many current jobs. It also will create a vast amount of new jobs. Technological advancements can be the silver lining to our dark cloud of unemployment.

We need to create curricula and skilled teachers who can — at scale — train our young people so that they will be able to apply for jobs that we are yet to imagine.

• Steyn is the chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA. He writes in his personal capacity.


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