Picture: 123RF/ALPHASPIRIT
Picture: 123RF/ALPHASPIRIT

The most productive workers in the world today leverage technology to help them do their jobs better. As the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) rapidly gains momentum, the surest way for companies and individuals to excel is to build technical skills.

Many jobs and industries benefit from 4IR, ranging from the radiologist who uses machine learning to detect early-stage cancer to the sales manager who uses big data to reach targeted prospects. Even wine farmers are switched on to 4IR, using data from sensors in their vineyards to measure moisture, wind and temperature so they can accurately water and nourish their vines for an optimal harvest.

Specific skills are necessary for companies that want to realise the potential of 4IR. Think digitalisation: coding; data science; robotics; artificial intelligence and machine learning, or, at the very least, an understanding of basic coding; analytical thinking; mathematical understanding; logical reasoning; and data analysis.

More than any other revolution, 4IR requires an appetite for lifelong learning because technology advances every day, and if we don’t stay on top of it we quickly become obsolete. But technology is only one half of the equation. Particular personal attributes, dubbed “21st-century qualities”, are also required. These include grit (the staying power to see a problem through to resolution); the ability to collaborate in teams, solve complex problems and achieve active learning; a growth mindset; and optimism.

At the heart of the growing digital mindset are the expectations of customers and consumers. Covid-19 has accelerated digitalisation, and we’ve all seen companies rushing development to remain relevant and to compete. Everyone now expects to be able to do business online. This has created new consumption patterns, which have given rise to new ways companies and individuals organise, produce, trade and innovate, resulting in new and varied business models. Having a good mix of 4IR skills and 21st-century qualities available in-house helps companies meet the challenges of rapid change, and ongoing skills development is the key to embracing 4IR.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently revealed that his organisation digitised more in three months of 2020 than in the preceding years. Companies that don’t pay attention to skills development will be left behind in a constantly evolving world. If we don’t invest in the skills of our people they will soon be redundant, and so will our businesses. Who remembers companies like Kodak, which once led the photography industry, and Nokia, which led the cellphone industry? Both failed because they didn’t adapt.

There is another aspect to this too: talented employees want to work for forward-thinking companies and will move on if their development needs are not met. And speaking of employees, embracing 4IR enables youth employment. Unemployment is a critical issue in SA, where we have an abnormally high number of unemployed young people with no prospects. Digital skills development can create employment for them as it moves our country forward.

And while our education system is failing our youth, this doesn’t mean we don’t have highly talented individuals in our country. In fact, digitalisation gives them an advantage because they are innately tech-savvy and understand the digital world in a way older generations don’t. Even better, digitalisation doesn’t require young people to have years’ worth of expensive education — micro-courses can get them where they need to be, which is very likely to be the key to their future.

Today’s Gen Z and Millennials think nothing of learning what they need to know to gain a new skill, and they will do this again and again, acquiring a range of skills and moving on every time a new skill or a new way of doing things comes along. This flexibility and resilience is partly what makes them such attractive employees. 

If we’re wise, this is the generation that can lead SA into contention on the world stage. Our digital economy recently took 65th place out of 139 countries surveyed in the Networked Readiness Index. That’s something to be proud of. So we’re halfway there, but we need to accelerate our efforts and allow our youth to fulfil their potential.

SA is already the world’s leading destination for business process outsourcing, with many digital jobs performed here for a range of global companies. The banking sector has paid attention to incoming technologies and tools that will change banking methods and affect their staff. We’ve seen an increase in requests from this sector for training, specifically in new technologies, from data engineering to Python developers.

Government grants are available to employers through the SA Revenue Service and the Sector Education and Training Authority, but they can go further too. They need to create a progressive policy environment that enables 4IR to thrive. Enablers could include tax incentives, promoting skills development and communications policies that free up bandwidth and bring down costs.

Whether with or without government support, digital skills development is the way to close the gap between the haves and have-nots, enabling our country to progress.

• Sithole is head of Mindworx Academy.

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