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Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

SA faces a daunting challenge when it comes to unemployment, with extended rates reaching beyond a staggering 50% (officially 30%). Computer literacy remains a pressing concern, limiting economic expansion and stunting workers’ personal growth.

A study conducted by management consulting firm Korn Ferry underscores a global skills gap in the information technology (IT) sector. The study argues that there will be a global human talent shortage of more than 85-million people by 2030. Unchecked, this talent shortage could result in about $8.5-trillion in unrealised annual revenue due to the vast number of unfilled IT jobs worldwide.

SA is no exception. We are already experiencing substantial revenue loss due to an inability to fill IT positions. The country has a skills shortage of 20,000-70,000 high-end IT professionals.

The global skills shortage puts SA at further risk of losing skilled professionals to developed countries trying to compensate for their own shortfalls, meaning that even more professionals will be required to bridge the gap in this country.

With the above in mind, closing the skills gap is the difference between having a sluggish or growing economy. But we cannot expect to be able to close the skills gap if we do not produce high school graduates who meet the standard necessary to pursue IT at a higher education level.

One initiative aimed at addressing this gap is the introduction of IT education from primary school level. While laudable, it faces numerous challenges, notably resource constraints, inadequate teacher training and infrastructure deficiencies. Without effective solutions to these challenges, the goal of nurturing a new generation proficient in IT may remain elusive.

The skills gap includes high schoolteachers who lack formal training in IT. Many SA educators are barely proficient in basic computer skills, hampering their ability to prepare their students for an IT-driven future.

It is of central importance to expose children to IT at an early age and foster among them a passion for Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. However, many students lack any exposure to IT concepts, with some encountering computers only when they enrol in tertiary education.

Belgium Campus is entrusted by many corporates to disburse their education bursaries to fitting previously disadvantaged individuals, but we find that even at tertiary level, students lack awareness of IT opportunities, being unfamiliar with the field before their enrolment.

The challenge is compounded by limited access to technology during their childhood development phase, with many schools lacking computer resources and often with parents who have never used a computer.

In comparison, more advanced countries’ IT literacy is ingrained from an early age. SA lags behind and therefore needs to urgently address this disparity to remain competitive in an environment in which AI will be the norm.

Access to affordable data and technology is a key driver in narrowing the IT skills gap and fostering inclusivity in the digital age. For instance, there are initiatives in other countries, such as Thailand, where free Wi-Fi is made available to the entire population, recognising that access to data is crucial for participation in the digital economy. While data costs in SA have improved, they remain prohibitive for many individuals, excluding them from the benefits of technology.

There are further challenges. Reducing the pass rate requirements means many students will receive a bachelor endorsement on paper but still not have the necessary knowledge and skills to successfully pursue a bachelor’s degree. This is not only a disservice to the country’s youth and what they strive for, but also the future of our country.

The focus of the Belgium Campus iTVersity in its distribution of bursaries totalling about R30m a year is to enable students to pursue IT education in the form of vocational certificates and diplomas as pathways to ultimately enter the technology workforce successfully with hands-on experience, as well as bachelor’s degrees for both academic and professional tertiary education.

To prepare students for that future, it has adopted an initiative among high schools to provide extra lessons in IT, computer applications technology and maths during winter breaks; donating computers to schools; and it plans to conduct training courses for IT educators to bridge the skills gap at the grassroots level.

I remain optimistic about the evolving landscape of technology education in SA. There is a growing awareness of the importance of IT skills, driven in part by advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and the emergence of Generation Z. The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated this awareness, highlighting the need for digital literacy and proficiency in an increasingly technology-driven and remote-working world.

There are diverse opportunities available to individuals entering the field at a basic level. For instance, infrastructure specialists are responsible for ensuring the smooth functioning of organisational computer networks.

 In addition, there are many opportunities in software development, ranging from basic website design to app development. These entry-level positions empower individuals to code and develop software applications, laying the groundwork for further specialisation in areas like software architecture and system design through bachelor’s degrees.

All students need a comprehensive understanding of career pathways in the ICT industry, from practical infrastructure roles to more advanced software engineering positions.

• Van Wyk is chief marketing and sales officer at Belgium Campus iTVersity.

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