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Here’s how we need to think about digital skills in 2024

It’s no secret that, in addition to an unemployment crisis, South Africa suffers from a significant skills shortage. Some might see that as a paradox but they actually feed into each other. Without the requisite skills, many companies struggle to scale and grow, which would ease the unemployment crisis. There are few sectors where this skills shortage is felt more acutely than in the digital arena. 

A good example of how big the shortage is can be seen in the software development space. Of the 26.8 million developers worldwide, just 121 000 call South Africa home. But developers are just one slice of the digital skills pie. Other skills that the country urgently needs include those related to cybersecurity, big data analytics, and connectivity. 

But how can the country ensure that it builds those much-needed skills in a way that’s impactful and sustainable in the long term? One important step is to reframe how we think about digital skills development. It’s an approach which, among other things, means that the country will be better prepared for new technologies rather than reacting to them and which centres the whole person rather than focusing solely on a specific hard skill. 

Embracing new tech  

When it comes to embracing new technologies rather than fearing them, it’s hard to think of a more powerful example than artificial intelligence (AI). At the extreme ends of AI discourse, there are accelerationists, who believe that the rapid development of technologies in the field will benefit humanity and doomers, who take a far more pessimistic view on the future of AI and its implications for humanity. 

In truth, much probably depends on how we choose to use the technology. For now, however, it’s important to remember that AI can be a significant enabler for digital workers and even create jobs. We know this because it’s already happening. In the programming space, for example, AI tools have helped developers program faster, be more productive, and even enjoy enhanced job satisfaction.       

The same will likely be true across a broad spectrum of industries but only if people have the necessary skills to utilise AI effectively. As such, workers and businesses alike need to stop viewing AI as a threat, start thinking about how to use it to their advantage and build up their skills accordingly.  

Focusing on the whole person 

Getting people to the point where they can take this forward-looking approach to skills development is, however, not as simple as telling them to do so. And even if someone already has this attitude, you can’t just provide them with that specific skill. You also have to develop the whole person.

That means ensuring that skills development always happens within a relevant context. Within this context, people are equipped with more than a technical capability but also given the support and resources to flourish in the environment where the acquired skills will be applied. Among the many benefits of this approach is that it means people will likely pick up future skills faster than they otherwise would have.

An important whole-person approach is the promotion of life-long learning. Here again, organisations cannot simply say they support life-long learning. They have to demonstrate that they do too. That means creating a supportive environment that encourages lifelong learning and learning agility as the foundation on which effective skills training and talent development can happen.

Understanding that skills development is a collective effort 

Finally, it’s important to remember that skills development cannot be truly effective if it happens in isolation. Instead, organisations across all sectors must remember that they exist in an ecosystem and that real, transformative skills development can only happen when all the players in that ecosystem are pulling in the same direction. 

It’s something we firmly believe in at Salesforce, with our South African talent strategy focusing on five pillars:  schools, universities and tertiary institutions, the partner ecosystem, customers and a country-wide digital skills initiative. 

We forecast that our approach will create 31 800 new jobs and generate US$5.1 billion in new business revenue in South Africa by 2026. Imagine if that kind of impact were replicated across a broad swathe of organisations in a variety of sectors. How big an impact would that have on the country’s twin scourges of high unemployment and skills shortages? 

Act now or fall behind

Given the incredible need for skills development in South Africa, along with the rapid pace of technological advancement, it’s clear that urgent action is needed. And if it’s not taken, the country risks falling behind and becoming uncompetitive. But it should also be clear that we need to be very careful about how we think about skills development in 2024. Ultimately, the idea isn’t to patch holes but to build a cohort of workers ready to face the future with full confidence.