Overcoming the skills gap and unemployment crisis in South Africa through digital transformation will require a re-imagining of how we perceive job roles, job families and career streams, as well as revisiting how we impart skills and requirements for employees, writes Hope Lukoto,Chief Human Resources Officer at BCX.

That South Africa has a crippling unemployment crisis, particularly among young people, is a sobering reality of where we are as a nation. Over 20 million people under the age of 35 are unemployed, many millions lack access to education and training. The pandemic has also exacerbated the inequality gap in wealth, knowledge and opportunity. As the technology industry, it is both an opportunity and, indeed, our duty to overcome that, and to create a workforce that is 4IR competent and to put South Africa at the forefront of the revolution.

Digital is permeating everything and is driving a transformation that will change the nature of how, where, when and even why we work, live and play. Believing that we can grow the economy post the pandemic is to ignore the seismic and fundamental change of how the very nature of job roles has changed and will continue to change.

The tech-driven world CAN create more jobs. We can rekindle economic transformation if we focus on emergent technologies and skills, and tech is changing at an exponentially rapid pace, with emerging skills such blockchain, artificial intelligence and automation playing an increasing function in everything. It’s not a question of whether we are ready or not. We have to accelerate to create and increase opportunity.

A McKinsey study from 2017 projected that by 2030 as much as 14 percent of the global workforce will have to change jobs or acquire new skills as a result of emerging skills. We should focus on the outputs of employees, and the requirements of a particular project or a job. We will find there is much we can work with to build and create new and evolving criteria and responsibilities.

Collaboration is vital with regards to foundational educational skills and teaching young South Africans tech skills. I was part of a panel at the BCX Directors Event recently that discussed how to overcome the unemployment and skills gap. We heard how a true embracing of 4IR will require an all-encompassing, collaborative and systemic change in mindset from basic education through tertiary training to eventually entering the employment market. As eminent education academic Professor Jonathan Jansen said on the panel, education is about giving you the mindset and the skillset.

We have to dispel the fear that skills will be displaced by automation. We have to look at it differently. Our essential human skills are not going to be taken away, but they will be enhanced. Adopting robotics and automation allows us to think differently about our careers and our skills. We also need to highlight enough design thinking and innovation as a skill and a capability. If you take my company as an example, after 25 years we still have innovation as our driving core.

Reshaping solutions for employees and customers

We must keep re-thinking, re-imagining and re-shaping what we know into solutions for our employees and customers. We must focus on problem solving and critical thinking. Those are the skills that will allow us to create, build and innovate, being able to solve problems that affect us on a daily basis.

We must create developers and equip them to solve problems. If we give the youth platforms, either through government or the corporate sector, and provide them with opportunities and hubs to grow and engage with technology, we can offer value and unlock entrepreneurial ventures that will allow more people to enter into the economy and promote growth.

We must think differently about jobs, about careers. As individuals we learn at different stages of our lives. We learn informally and formally by attending college and attaining certifications. Even in our day-to-day jobs, we continually learn. If we zoom in and focus on skills, and look away from job roles and job families, and narrow focus roles, requirements, and responsibility, we will open ourselves to a much wider future with increased opportunities.

We need to take the adjacent skills people have and see what we can build on, so they remain relevant to where the industry is and where it is going. This will open up room for a younger generation to play with technology, to look at job streams they might not have thought of. Take the discipline of data science, for example. That can be applied throughout the value chain in the corporate sector. Chances are that people think about it in terms of technology only. Those data science competencies are going to have to be re-invented throughout, not only in technology, in human resources, in marketing, in finance.

It can be done. The gap can be overcome, but we have to focus on skills and capabilities that are going to drive digital transformation. We must accelerate digital transformation; we must get comfortable with technology and integrate it into our lives and the economy. That integration can no longer be regarded as a possible plan, but a necessary reality of what South Africa needs if we are to truly unlock and embrace the potential of the fourth industrial revolution to transform our country and make it a better, stronger and more equitable place for all to work, live and grow.

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