Digital illiteracy is blocking out large swathes of the population from emerging sects of the job market as entire industries are being transformed by the fourth industrial revolution.
But young people are taking the lead in closing the great digital divide between those who have the digital literacy to thrive in the economy and those who are left in the dark, say experts
From South Africa’s private schools which offer coding and software development classes, to the rural public schools where teachers can’t use laptops, South Africa’s great digital divide is well documented. But the post Covid-19 era promises to be even rougher for those who cannot get skills in information communication technology (ICT) soon enough.
Brick-and-mortar businesses are going fully or partially digital, with employees working remotely and the manufacturing and service industries are making use of robotics and machine learning, which is fast replacing thousands of entry-level jobs.
The Covid-19 pandemic coincides with an era where 63% of young people in SA between ages 15 and 24 don’t have jobs. At the same time, job creation in the public sector appears to have reached its limits with government hashing out a three-year plan to slash its public wage bill.
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But young people have the opportunity to usher in a young society that does not depend on government for employment, according to 28-year-old tech entrepreneur and data scientist, Bongekile Filana.
A future with paperless classrooms, learning to code in high school and creating a nation of tech startups and employable young skilled workers is not only attainable but necessary – to do a lot more in preparing young people with 21st century skills, she says.
“According to a recent report by the National Youth Development Agency [NYDA], this skills gap is a major contributing factor to unemployment. Young people are completing qualifications with skills that are not actually wanted in the labour market and not aligned with the future of work.”
Filana, who is the youngest board member of the National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa, says the gap lies in the foundations of the education system, where young people are exposed too late in life to vital technological skills which are par for the course in other countries.
“We need to make sure that the future generations are getting education that aligns with the job market demands in the fifth industrial revolution.”
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Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams recently discussed youth opportunities in the digital economy re-imagined in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Addressing a virtual conference during the KZN Innovation Tech Expo this week, Ndabeni said young people must rise to the challenge of leading our recovery after the Coronavirus.
According to the Word Bank Group’s 2019 publication, The Future of Work in Africa : Harnessing the Potential of Digital Technologies for All, sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest levels of human capital and the largest stock of ill-equipped adults compared to other regions, despite having the fastest-growing labour force.
This shows that despite the fact that young people are getting more access to education, education systems have not caught up with the job market.
“And even those who have graduated outside of the ICT skills sector, we need to see how we can up-skill them so that they can contribute in the digital industrial economy that we are talking about. [The digital economy] is disrupting all the sectors. We need to re-skill and up-skill the graduates and even those already in the workforce. ”
Many of these people now risk losing their jobs if they cannot adapt to the demands of changing work spaces. This is especially so now that the Covid-19 pandemic has forced employers and employees to operate remotely, in a mostly paperless environment.
According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef), though young people face the constraints of poverty, those initiating the greatest change in their communities are youths.
“The key message really is about creating relevant skills for today’s South Africa and enabling young people to opportunities to access digital skills that they will be able to transition into their working lives,” says Unicef South Africa’s Toby Fricker.
“Encouraging the creation of entrepreneurship opportunities is vital, because what we’re trying to say on Youth Day is that despite all these challenges from Covid-19, from mental health issues and unemployment to education, it’s young people themselves who are starting to step up and who have the power and agency to help change things as well.”
Filana further argues that entrepreneurship is not nearly encouraged enough and that there exists a mentality that government must provide jobs. Little may people know that a myriad of opportunities to take part in the digital economy already exist and with a little help from funders, educators and mentors, there could be even more.
The growth in the demand for e-services and “e-government” in which public institutions are modernising their operations are two fast-growing areas for small business opportunities, says Filana.
“The government is trying to move from manual to automated systems so if you are a young person, I would recommend that you focus on e-service or e-government. Try to build on services that are responding to the challenges our citizens are currently facing and the challenges the government is trying to solve.”
Some of the young people in business are starting to focus on technology transfer in the form of creating electronic products which are in demand in South Africa but are normally manufactured and imported from other countries.
“So in the manufacturing of these products young people are now taking advantage of that space and trying to penetrate that market. So I would recommend to young people in ICT or even education that there are skills development services that are needed now.”