Opinionista Maryana Iskander and Evan Jones 3 November 2020

Digital economy: What kinds of jobs can help fuel economic recovery and growth?

At least 3 million jobs have been lost this year and labour market participation by young adults has dropped a staggering 12 percentage points to just below 16%. If job losses persist, we will have lost a decade’s worth of job growth in only six months.

As we look ahead to economic recovery and regrowth, what sectors should we prioritise for investment? It is clear that, despite the global recession, the digital economy continues to grow and requires digital and ICT skills to fuel its requirements. 

To properly quantify the opportunities that digital jobs could create for young South Africans, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator completed research that took a deep dive into understanding what the precise roles are needed by small and large businesses to enable their growth in the digital economy. The research identifies – in granular detail – what jobs and competencies are in high demand, as well as which specific certifications are most needed by businesses and employers.

The fieldwork for this survey was conducted at a time of sudden, unexpected and extraordinary change brought on by the global Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, all 102 small, medium and large South African enterprises that participated in the survey, agreed unanimously that they are facing workplace challenges that have never been seen before. Businesses are changing how they work, which has resulted in greater skills, talent and hiring challenges.

The first big insight from the research is reconfirmation that the market for digitised services is growing, despite the economic shocks of the Covid-19 pandemic. The South Africa in the Digital Age (SADA) initiative issued a roadmap for how the country’s 50,000 jobs serving a global export market can be scaled up 10 times to 500,000 new jobs by 2030 as the trade of digitised services requiring human capacity for expanding global growth increases. 

The challenge and opportunity is how to grab more of that global market share for South Africa. Currently, over two-thirds of South African firms surveyed outsource their digital work to other countries. This translates to an estimated lost export revenue of about R8.5-billion per annum. The question of how to “re-shore” this work back to South Africa and provide jobs for young South Africans is what the research explored. If the enabling environment for re-shoring was in place – along with a skills pipeline of the right capabilities – we can see line of sight to generate an estimated 66,000 jobs, 67% of which are entry-level roles, along with much-needed tax revenue and foreign direct investment.

But what kinds of skills exactly? The research asked in painstaking detail exactly what kind of skills and certifications are needed to help businesses grow and hire. It shows that the most in-demand jobs right now include desktop support technicians, junior software developers, and data analysts. Over the next five years, as businesses project what they will need more of, machine learning and data management skills will grow in importance. 

Pathways into these and other digital roles need to be cheaper, quicker and more inclusive. Traditionally, these jobs have required individuals to have years of formal training, degrees and extensive work experience, which excludes many young people due to the financial constraints associated with university education. 

For these jobs to be accessible to young people, employers must use inclusive approaches to hiring that do not unnecessarily exclude applicants based on qualifications. For example, there is an assumption in hiring for digital and ICT talent that candidates must have a high proficiency in mathematics. However, Harambee has found that problem-solving and critical-thinking are better indicators of success to be a coder than numerical and verbal reasoning alone. 

Employers must also shift their thinking about credentials. Micro-credentials offer subject-specific certifications for those who cannot access a full-length university degree. These shorter courses and ongoing continuous learning provide innovative and fast reskilling, and right skilling, in ways that also ensure businesses keep abreast of technology innovation.

Vendor-specific certifications are one form of micro-credentialing readily available to young people. Our research shows that the most in-demand vendor-specific certifications included Microsoft Azure Data Scientist and Developer, Google Cloud Developer and Amazon Web Services Cloud Practitioner. By making these pathways more accessible to young people, real jobs are available on the other side of the training. 

Additionally, the onboarding of young people must set them up for success in the workplace. Through our work, we have found that employers don’t always have the experience or management capacity to integrate entry-level talent into the workplace successfully. Unemployed youth may need a stepping-stone experience to become proficient contributing members of the workplace.  

Many organisations provide solutions to upskilling young people for digital jobs such as WeThinkCode, CapaCiTi, Tshimologong Digital Skills Academy and Explore Data Science Academy. Harambee has also launched a digital jobs incubator in Cape Town called Digilink to transition unemployed young people into jobs as software testers by doing real work for real clients under the guidance of experienced mentors.

All of these models provide pathways for excluded youth to find a way into the digital economy.  

Young South Africans can contribute significantly to the economic growth and development of South Africa’s digital economy. But businesses need to be realistic and open-minded to hire problem-solvers and creative thinkers, along with qualified tech-heads. 

They should place more focus on the attributes, aptitude, cognitive abilities and emotional intelligence of entry-level workers in addition to degrees and diplomas. Public-private partnerships are necessary to build digital-skilling solutions that provide experiential learning for high demand roles and address unemployment with sustainable talent pipelines. We see a real opportunity for government and industry stakeholders to realign the digital skills ecosystem to be much more connected to the jobs in need. BM/DM

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  • Quite a good road map except for the suggestion that we can rely on government to help, not hinder, its implementation. I hope that Cape Town takes note that low cost data is almost as essential as water and electricity if it is to achieve its potential as a smart as well as a beautiful destination.

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