“I had never touched a computer before this,” says Asanda Ntoyi, a year 11 student busily typing away on a PC keyboard as she talks. The 16-year-old is one of hundreds of secondary school pupils who have been able to become computer literate through classes at Jikindaba School in South Africa’s Eastern Cape.
The school’s IT centre gives young people access to computers and essential training which can take them from the basics of writing a CV right through to writing their own computer program.
15-year-old Bavuyile Ngalavu is hopeful of a career in the industry after his success learning IT skills at the centre. “My tutor says I am very good at the basics of coding now,” he says, proudly.
Skills of the future
This kind of digital education offers huge potential in the fight against poverty and inequality around the world. The global job market is already increasingly reliant on digital skills and this trend will only intensify.
According to a 2016 study by the World Economic Forum, the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ – technological transformation of the world economy – will drive significant job growth in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – at the expense of other disciplines.
Europe and the US are struggling to keep up with competitors from the Far East such as Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, which are traditionally more focused on STEM and digital skills. Some emerging economies – not least in Africa – will be coming at this challenge from a very low base and much rests on their ability to rapidly catch up with more developed nations.
The South African government has been working with Tata Consultancy Services to build IT learning centres which can help spread digital skills in the community. After an initial pilot project, the Jikindaba Secondary centre was opened with 25 computers available to numerous schools in the area.
In partnership with the NGO Change the World, both teachers and pupils have been training in computer skills that will help them go on to work in the digital economy.
It is training that is greatly needed. The World Economic Forum report said the Fourth Industrial Revolution could result in a net loss of over five million jobs in 15 major developed and emerging economies, including South Africa, as the types of skills required changes fundamentally over the next five years. Digital disruption is seen as having more impact than any other trend in the marketplace.
Source: World Economic Forum
In spite of a growing demand for digital and technology skills, South Africa’s students predominantly read business, humanities, social sciences and education at university. Engineering and technology come close to the bottom of the list. Businesses in South Africa are struggling to find appropriately trained graduates.
Unless the trend can be inverted to match the future skills profile, the lack of talent is bound to have a detrimental economic impact.
Source: World Economic Forum
IT training centres like the one at Jikindaba School give students technology know-how along with the soft skills needed to help them enter the workforce in addition to vital motivation and self-confidence.
Different but the same
The United States may be a world away from South Africa in terms of its booming IT sector and world-leading tech status but the same forces are at work in the job market and young people face many of the same challenges.
The US is experiencing the same disproportionate growth in STEM jobs as other places.
Source: Adecco US
Here, the issue is not that there aren’t enough STEM graduates, but that their skillset is much sought-after in non-STEM fields. Out of 100 bachelor students who enter college, 19 graduate with a STEM major. But only ten will work directly in STEM – the rest end up in other professions. And their number whittles down to only eight who still work in the sector after ten years.
In Canada, a 2015 report by the Council of Canadian Academies acknowledges STEM as critical to innovation but finds no immediate signs of an imbalance in supply and demand. However, it does highlight that immigrants – who make up around a fifth of Canada’s population – account for more than 50% of all STEM degree-holders, and that women are under-represented.
The answer in both cases is the same as in other regions: more youngsters need to enter the STEM funnel for more to come out qualified at the other end.
A goIT programme in the United States
And, just as in other regions, it is the disadvantaged who are at most risk of missing out on the most needed education and training.
The goIT programme in North America is tackling the issue at grassroots level. It involves TCS staff mentoring young people in their communities and teaching them computer programming.
Students learn icon-based programming languages and apply them to hands-on challenges to hone their critical thinking, problem solving and team working. Offered cost-free to middle and high school students, goIT also covers teacher training, career guidance and advice to parents.
Since 2009, 10,000 students across 32 North American cities have participated in the programme. More than half of them reported an increased interest in STEM disciplines, and 86% agreed that the programme encouraged them to consider a STEM career.
A global issue
Whether in the world’s largest economy or a developing nation, many of the challenges are the same. The need for science, technology, engineering and mathematics experience and qualifications is already strong and only predicted to grow.
An increasingly high tech world economy promises to transform many aspects of society and will bring many benefits as it does so. But to really take advantage of the opportunities that will become available, young people must be given the chance to gain the key skills needed.
By reaching out to disadvantaged young people, business can help provide the education and training they will need as they reach adulthood. Poverty and inequality can be a multi-generational trap if the right education and training are not given. Offering an opportunity to learn even basic IT skills can be enough to allow young people to embrace the digital future.