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Tech professionals urge a review of curricula as SA’s unemployment crisis worsens

South Africa’s unemployment, especially among its youth, is a national emergency and the crisis means current institutional frameworks and strategies in education need to be urgently reviewed.

This is according to a panel discussion hosted during the virtual two-day ITWeb Business Intelligence Summit 2021 this week.

The panel comprised Shaun Dippnall, Founder and CEO of EXPLORE, a portfolio of Digital Academies that deliver digital skills at scale; Siobhain O'Mahony, Analytics, Strategy and Investments Leader; Non-executive Director; Dominic Albrecht, Head of Analytics, Digital Planet; and Karl Dinkelmann, Founder and CEO, Nexus Data.

The theme for the session was Strategies for increasing data literacy in your organisation, and speakers agreed that the exponential growth in data and adoption of AI, machine learning and robotics, means that the market demand for data analytics skill sets and literacy will only escalate.

Given South Africa’s unemployment rate (at 32.5%, according to Statistics SA), and the rate at which data is being produced, there is a growing need for intervention to address the skills supply-demand conundrum that the country is wrestling with.

The situation is exacerbated by South African companies losing out to foreign counterparts in being able to recruit and keep skilled talent, as well as ongoing retrenchment and downsizing as a direct result of COVID-19.

There are a number of other challenges, in addition to the impact of the pandemic, including the relevance of current course material against what businesses in the market expect and how they operate.

ITWeb quoted Dippnall as saying: “COVID-19 has had two big impacts on this sector. The first is that local companies are suffering, they are retrenching and there are hiring freezes - they are not hiring like they did two years ago.

“The massive positive, which outweighs the negative, is that in a work-from-home world, you can do data science anywhere in the world. The South African market has dropped 30% but the global market has increased 10 000%.

“The market is incredibly exciting for young South African digital talent. Unfortunately, South African companies are probably not going to hire all of this great talent; they are going to be hired by US and Europe companies.”

In January this year EXPLORE Data Science Academy added Data Engineering to its online training offerings.

The 12-month course will provide applicants with the specific skill set required to become data engineers.

At the time Dippnall told ITWeb Africa: “The use of vast quantities of data by data scientists now requires those with a specialised skill set to organise data and ensure its quality, security and availability to the organisation. These are data engineers.”

According to Dippnall apart from the skill set, there is a shortage of training courses online that offer both the content and practical application of data engineering skills required in the work place. This is particularly true of the South African market.

Partnership to support data science graduates

Several initiatives to develop these sought-after skill sets have been rolled out. Among these is a partnership between Ishango, a social enterprise creating highly skilled jobs in Africa and the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), described as Africa’s first and largest network of centres for innovative post-graduate training in mathematical sciences.

According to the partners, the alliance intends to connect top African data scientists with international work experience opportunities.

“The partnership will boost African data science graduates' employment prospects through a fully funded, three-month fellowship program. The fellows will be equipped with technical and soft skills to prepare them for the international job market. Hosted at the AIMS Rwanda Centre of Excellence in Kigali, fellows will also get real-world experience, working remotely on projects and adding value to international organisations,” they have stated.

Eunice Baguma Ball, Co-Founder of Ishango said, “Leveraging data has become increasingly crucial for the growth of businesses and organisations across the globe. Thanks to the work of institutions like AIMS, Africa now has a growing pool of bright and talented data scientists who have the potential to compete at a global level. At Ishango, our goal is to be the bridge between Africa’s top talent and global businesses. Through this partnership with AIMS, we now have access to the very best that Africa has to offer. We look forward to working together to develop the data leaders of tomorrow.”

Dr. Charles Lebon Mberi Kimpolo, Director of the AIMS Industry Initiative added that, “With the growing technological advancements, things are becoming more and more connected. In today’s smarter communities, traditional data processing software and techniques cannot deal with the analysis required to understand human behaviour. Specialised technical skills and tools are needed to deal with such large data and information. This is why we need to build capacity and create a critical mass of data scientists equipped with the required skills to understand how to perform complex data tasks across various businesses.”

“AIMS is proud to partner with Ishango to leverage its partnerships and networks to provide AIMS alumni with opportunities to learn new skills and contribute to human capital development needed by partner companies. We believe this data science and AI fellowship program will boost AIMS alumni’s employability skills and enhance their transition to relevant employment.”

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