Unemployment in South Africa, especially among the youth, is undoubtedly the most important socioeconomic challenge. For the last two decades, the unemployment rate has exceeded 20%. At the end of 2021, it reached a record high of 35%, making South Africa one of the countries with the highest unemployment rate in the world. Recently, however, the Quarterly Labour Force Survey revealed that South Africa’s overall unemployment rate decreased to 32.9% and our youth unemployment rate decreased to 45.5% in the third quarter of 2022.
This improvement, while marginal, gives cause for optimism. But continuing this upward trend will require us to consider the future of work. Technological innovation is leading to major disruptions in nearly every industry, while digital skills are in short supply. Concerns over mass job displacement are looming due to artificial intelligence and automation. The private and public sectors must accelerate efforts to prepare our workforce for this technological shift.
The future of work
In 2017, the World Economic Forum estimated that 15 to 20 million increasingly well-educated young people are expected to join the African workforce every year for the next three decades. According to the report, Sub-Saharan Africa only captures 55% of its human capital potential, compared to a global average of 65%. In the coming years, fully utilising this growing workforce will require providing quality jobs and the necessary skills to do them.
The traditional view of employment opportunities is fast becoming outdated. Organisations are no longer looking for employees with tertiary qualifications and years of experience with legacy technologies. Certifications in and knowledge of newer digital technologies are more sought after. Businesses are pushing their digital transformation efforts to remain competitive in today’s digitally driven markets – and they need professionals with the right skills to fully leverage these technologies.
The new business environment revolves around digital transformation-related technologies such as cloud architecture and data centres, cybersecurity, Internet of Things, and machine learning. Cybersecurity, for example, has become a priority for most organisations, but there is a massive shortage of cybersecurity professionals to meet this demand. And, considering that South Africa had the third most cybercrime victims worldwide in 2019 at a cost of R2.2 billion a year, filling this skills gap is not only crucial for creating job opportunities, but also for protecting the country’s public and private sectors.
The need for digital skills
With the emergence of disruptive technologies comes a dramatic change in the demand for skills related to those technologies. Africa’s defining challenge will be how to educate and upskill individuals in line with changing business and innovation demands. Otherwise, we risk exacerbating the continent’s existing digital divide. The Future of Jobs Report 2020 estimated that, on average, 15% of a company’s workforce is at risk of disruption and 6% of employees are expected to be displaced by 2025.
Alarmingly, the World Bank’s Global Competitiveness Report 2020 found that South Africa experienced the second-largest decline in the perceived adequacy of graduate skills when compared to other G20 economies. South Africa was also among the five countries that showed the largest decline in the perceived relevance of digital skills. This highlights the urgent need for prioritising digital transformation and innovation in order to improve our employment figures.
Those without relevant skills are less likely to find employment opportunities and are at the greatest risk of being replaced by automation. But, if we can provide them with opportunities to upskill or reskill themselves, we may see dramatic improvement to our unemployment rate. Digital skills are in high demand globally. There are 700,000 unfilled cybersecurity jobs around the world, all while South Africa sits at a critical junction regarding access to adequate cybersecurity talent and know-how. The last few years have seen critical infrastructure and public institutions, such as Transnet and the Department of Justice, suffer debilitating cyberattacks, highlighting how important it is that we improve these skills.
Private sector investment
Global organisations are realising the importance and value of investing in education and entrepreneurship. Various sectors of the South African economy can benefit from doing the same.
The Cisco Networking Academy, for example, is one of the largest and longest running IT skills-to-jobs programmes in the world. To date, over 7.5 million learners across 190 countries have enrolled – at no cost – in courses to gain digital skills. Of these learners, more than 1.07 million come from Sub-Saharan Africa, and 189,272 South Africans from underrepresented and underserved communities have received digital skills and training. The academy also facilitates hiring opportunities for students following their graduation, thanks to a database available to employers and Cisco partners globally.
The efficacy of these programmes in addressing unemployment has been remarkable. 95% of students who have taken Cisco certification-aligned courses have attributed obtaining a job or education opportunity to the Cisco Networking Academy. Cisco also plans to expand the programme to provide training to 25 million learners globally over the next 10 years. By continually learning and adapting our education institutions to current technological innovations and enterprise requirements, we set ourselves up to thrive in the future with the skills we will all need.
Securing Africa’s future
Providing tomorrow’s workforce and South Africa’s 4.6 million unemployed young job seekers with the skills and capabilities needed for the future of work is our only way forward. But efforts to do so cannot come from the public sector. At the United States–Africa Leaders Summit in Washington DC, which took place in December 2022, Cisco announced it would contribute around R3.4 billion towards resources and training facilities for digital skills in Africa, including schools, instructors, tools, and curricula. This contribution forms part of a commitment to train as many as 3 million Africans in digital and cybersecurity skills and improve the continent’s digital capabilities.
Bridging the digital skills gap in Africa is a monumental task that will necessitate close collaboration between the private and public sectors. And, to make the connection between education and real business needs, private sector investment must go toward training, certifications, and e-learning programmes. If we wish to create sustainable employment opportunities for Africa’s workforce tomorrow, we need to upskill our workforce today.
- Smangele Nkosi, General Manager South Africa at Cisco