Powering Youth Employment Through Work-Ready Digital Skills Training

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Powering Youth Employment Through Work-Ready Digital Skills Training
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There is a massive acceleration in the use of and demand for digital skills. It is a monumental shift and the challenge for businesses is to move fast and leverage the advantage digital skills can deliver. The pace of change is phenomenal. Creating the talent to fulfil jobs that rely on information and communications technology (ICT) skills is the only way economies and businesses can remain competitive.

Digital jobs could be a game changer for the South African economy and particularly in addressing one of the biggest challenges facing our country, that of youth unemployment.

That is why The Collective X is part of an initiative being driven by Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) and Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA), in partnership with the government, to explore opportunities within the private sector to significantly scale employment for excluded youth, even within the context of constrained economic growth.

Digital skills are widely applicable to many vital areas of the economy, in sectors spanning the obvious, such as financial services, ICT and global business services, to consumer goods and retail, agribusinesses, tourism and hospitality, mining, automotive and green energy. In the sectors we have engaged so far, digital skills are rightly being pitched as one of the greatest opportunities for youth unemployment, an area where, we believe, the private sector can drive strategic relationships to boost this potential.

Importantly, greater digitisation in small businesses also has the potential to supercharge the SMME sector – itself a potential lifeline for the job creation South Africa so desperately needs.

As The Collective X, we are a not-for-profit organisation that has cultivated a partnership-centred ecosystem with a unified plan and a sense of urgency to effectively address the digital skills crisis, by among others, aligning digital skills supply with current and future market demand. There is a plethora of jobs in the digital skills universe that South Africa urgently needs, including data science and analytics, software engineering, information and cyber security, learning and education, applied computing and computational science, user-centred interface and design, artificial intelligence (AI) prompt engineering, digital product development, sales and marketing and human resource and workforce management. These should be homegrown skills.

The advantage to South Africa’s youth acquiring these skills is, of course, the flexibility they provide in terms of hybrid or remote work, and their high portability – making the skill holder uniquely employable across multiple sectors.

There are exciting opportunities too, to look to a different future for South Africa, where instead of offshoring skills, as we currently do despite the enormous unemployment rate, we can re-shore the work we have offshored – with the vacancies filled by our appropriately skilled and work ready youth. Looking even further ahead, South Africa, by capitalising on a growing digital skills base has the potential to become a net exporter of digital skills, creating 20 000 to 25 000 new jobs each year.

But this process is not linear and we need to lock down the specific problem for which we are solving. The reason we are currently not seeing young digitally skilled individuals being able to access the thousands of available jobs is that there is a gap in the route to digital skills competence. Inferior quality education and training has not adequately prepared our youth for the world of work or created what we like to call a “pathway to competence.” Part of our strategy is to facilitate work readiness among the youth, a key feature of which is to incorporate work-integrated learning into a route to competency, where youth participate in a live work environment related to the requirements of their role.

Take the job of a junior data analyst, for example. The skill involves, at a basic level, foundational training and orientation to the world of work. This involves the so-called soft skills – life orientation, behavioural skills, problem solving, creative design and language, financial and digital literacy. These are the key components needed before the foundational technical aspects of the skill, such as introduction to computing and cybersecurity, can be developed. Once a young person has achieved a grounding at NQF level 4 or 5, they are able to move to the next level of understanding – pedagogy, exercises, typing skills, user proficiency skills. These are the minimum levels of competence required.

From there we can progress the youth to work-integrated learning — this takes the form of simulated on-the-job training to expose the learner to real-world problems and projects. Once proficiency at this level is achieved, we begin the final phase of the training journey – the youth start performing the real work for a company, but under guidance. Once competency is achieved in this final phase of training, they are deemed suitable to join the company which has commissioned the training.

The advantage of this method is that work-integrated learning bridges the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application, ensuring learners are not just employable but ready to contribute from day one—it is a lifeline to those from underprivileged backgrounds, providing the confidence needed to thrive in the professional world through mentorship and practical engagement. It is also a highly effective strategy for employers to build a pipeline of the digital skills they will need in the future.

The skills are demand-led and the youth are “skilled-to-order” – alleviating the frustration faced by many companies who relied on the previous learnership model, which pushes the supply of certain skills regardless of the demand for those skills.

Demand-led training saves time and money and holds benefits for companies and youth alike. For the learner there is a job at the end of the training, and for the company, their new employee has proven competence in the skill ordered.

An important part of our mandate at The Collective X is to advocate for the adoption of quality standards, to engage key role players to unblock barriers to sourcing digital talent at the right quality, time and price, and to scale up the digital skills supply chain. We seek to ensure South Africa adheres to global best practice and to align with the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA), which is the globally accepted common language for skills and competencies in the digital world, covering many in-demand occupations.

Agreed national standards are vital to ensure all stakeholders in South Africa’s bid to stimulate the economy and job creation are talking the same language, and to support skills development and skills management to meet future needs.

We believe that continued coordinated action from all stakeholders, including government, the private sector, the academic and research fraternity, social partners and civil society, can meaningfully address the youth unemployment crisis by matching skills demand with already competent digital skills supply.

  • Andy Searle, The Collective X
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