Lack of software skills is one of the biggest challenges to South Africa using the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) to unlock growth for the country.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has prioritised South Africa’s readiness for the 4IR, the new next wave of technology development, where the digital, physical and biological worlds converge.
President Ramaphosa in his State of the Nation address in February 2018 said that he planned to set up a Digital Industrial Revolution Commission to help the government think through strategies for South Africa to take advantage of rapid technological changes.
It will be very important that such a commission engages closely with the public and private sectors, the full spectrum of educational institutions from primary to tertiary education and international technology leaders to share best practices, provide innovative ideas and fresh expertise.
Ultimately, flexible partnerships, between the government and business are crucial, if South Africa is to successfully upgrade its skills to be compliant for the 4IR. Furthermore, adopting a flexible educational strategy will be vital to come up with new ways to transform the country’s existing skills base into a 4IR compliant one.
In 2011 in Germany, Industry 4.0 was formed, as a project to examine how the convergence of digital and operational technologies in context of the complete industrial value chain would digitally transform manufacturing. Since then the idea has expanded beyond manufacturing into other sectors, such as service industries.
Out of this came connected factories and industry with smart decentralised self-optimising systems and a digital supply chain, all driven by information technology in a combined physical-virtual world.
This convergence of physical and virtual worlds referred to as Cyber-Physical Systems is creating massive potential for, and current, change in the economies and societies of the world. Around the world companies and governments are investing in this potential and South Africa should be doing the same.
It is interesting to note that the technologies of 4IR are not limited to multinational corporates and can be applied to small and medium enterprises.
Even a small factory linking its production line capacity into the supply chain will result in manufacturing efficiencies and create opportunities for business to supply and support this capability. Given South Africa’s current primarily unskilled labour pool, and poorly performing education, we have to look at new innovative ways to educate our people to acquire the skills needed to capitalise on the 4IR.
An example of how to tackle our skills challenges in information technology (IT) is the Cape Town and Johannesburg based tech institution WeThinkCode_(WTC).
This is a free peer-to-peer university, which using an innovative process selects students with a programming aptitude, enthusiasm and willingness to learn, to join the two-year course. Apart from being free to the student it requires no prior experience and even a matric is optional.
As one of the three founding corporate sponsors of WTC, we have experienced real benefit from the investment by significantly boosting recruitment of top quality programming graduates.
In a country where software engineering graduates are in short supply and sometimes not properly trained as application software developers, this is an innovation that has the potential to be a game changer.
In the IT domain there are a many career options and skills requirements other than programming. Anecdotal evidence indicates that 10 jobs are created for every programmer that is trained and deployed into the market.
It is imperative that similar vocational based training approaches are used to skill up our people for roles in operations, networking and other technology functions.
A worldwide trend towards vocational training for a specific skill set allied with apprenticeships is becoming an excellent alternative to university training. It has the further benefit of being largely industry funded with less student debt and country investment. An approach that develops skills in the technologies of 4IR with specific vocational training, as per WTC, will benefit South Africa.
This thinking ties in with the President Rhamaposa’s Youth Employment Service (YES) initiative if that initiative recognises relevant 4IR related vocational training as part of the programme.
To further develop our local capabilities, South Africa must make it attractive, and easy, for immigrants with 4IR skills to move to South Africa and join in developing our industries. If the anecdotal job multiplier evidence is to be believed a single programmer can have an immediate impact on job 4IR creation.
Currently, in spite of our dire shortage of IT professionals, the hurdles to obtaining work visas for foreign skills are substantial. This approach flies in the face of other countries who open their arms to our technology graduates.
We have experienced this directly, with top software development professionals, being specifically targeted by head hunters and moving to Australia, New Zealand, Germany, The Netherlands, United Kingdom and the US.
With further collaboration between business and the government, along with initiatives such as YES, we can become a country with a future linked to the 4IR. We have the people and they just need the opportunity.
Peter Searle is the chief executive and Ralf Dominick the chairperson of BBD; Dominick was a panellist on the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation Inclusive Growth Forum, in the Drakensberg.