Sherrie Donaldson – Africa Code Week Launch 2019, Cape Town

Where there is a skill there is a way

I recently attended the World Skills Competition and Conference in Kazan Russia, where  over 1300 competitors, from 63 countries competed in over 50 traditional skills ranging from Landscaping to Welding. With an additional showcase (i.e. not part of the standard World Skills competition) of 25 Future Skills, from Drone operations to neural networks, World Skills 2019 fulfilled its mandate of

  • attracting public attention to the development of professional skills,
  • popularization of skills,
  • improvements in technical standards of skills and
  • contributing to economic growth.  

As part of every World Skills event a conference is held. The theme for 2019 was Skills for Impact: Building blocks of change with the hashtag “Skillschangelives”.

While there I came across a tagline from World Skills France that encapsulates everything, I believe in about skills “where there’s a skill there’s a way!” and I decided to incorporate this into my address this evening. Where there is a skill there is a way.

During the conference, Paul Comyn from the International Labour Organization, quoted the following World Bank research “60% of primary school children in low- and middle-income countries fail to achieve a minimum proficiency in math and reading”.

According to Brookings Centre for Universal Education this is estimated at 61 million African children.

A key topic across the conference was the need for lifelong learning in an era of rapid change. This was best encapsulated by American Astronaut, Scott Kelly, and Russian Cosmonaut, Sergei Krikalev, who have both spent long periods on the International Space Station in a discussion titled “The final frontier: skills lessons from the stars”.

 Let’s consider the Russian Cosmonaut, Sergei Krikalev, as an example of the importance of lifelong learning. He qualified as a mechanical engineer and worked part time as a mechanic on light airplanes. He later obtained his pilot’s license before successfully applying the Russian space program. He quotes a number of scenarios where he has had to continue lifelong learning during his career. For example, when the space station opened to other countries he had to learn to work with people from other cultures and other languages in enclosed spaces. As technology has changed he had had to learn new digital skills and has even had to work with a robonaut in space!

Both Scott and Sergei emphasized the importance of people skills in this environment and said this had been a substantial part of their lifelong learning processes. They mentioned collaboration, teamwork, cross cultural understanding, logical reasoning, fast thinking, situational awareness and the ability to compartmentalize. The Russian cosmonaut training programme teaches the last skill by making trainees do math problems while they are parachuting to earth.

The consequences of the continual need for lifelong learning, coupled with our very low academic proficiency are severe for Africa

  • Children stay in poverty, inequality and unemployment
  • Economic growth stagnates or stalls
  • Lifelong learning becomes irrelevant
  • Business doesn’t find the skills they need and develops alternative solutions, importing skills or worse, readymade solutions from other countries, or automate work to remove the need for people.
  • Skills gaps are exacerbated traditional and transforming skills and new emerging jobs can’t be filled
  • It may also impact the rollout of the South African coding curriculum

When I talk to the various stakeholders (business, SETA’s etc.) on behalf of Brics Skills Development Working Group, about Jobs of the future, I am told that “South Africa has got this”. Recent evidence would indicate that this is not so, and I would like to give 2 examples to show how far off we really are.

The first is that, in the recent World Skills Competition in Kazan, Russia, South Africa competed in only one out of 25 Future Skills areas. That is a 4% participation rate! We did, however, have experts that guided and judged in 3 other future skills areas.   Both experts and competitors were selected from the 2018 Brics Future Skills Challenge held in South Africa. It should also be noted that 2 of the experts raised the difference in standards between South Africans and participating countries in their skills.

The second is the area of Digital Jobs, that South Africa is totally unprepared for. 3 Digital jobs were showcased, Digital Fashion, Digital Factories and Digital Farming. As an example of a digital job lets understand the skill description for digital farming.

 ‘A specialist in digital farming is a digital agriculture specialist who should have the general skills set of a agriculturalist, drone operator, operator of state-of-the-art agricultural machinery and equipment, mechanical engineer, IT specialist with skills in software application and programming, and data analytics skills”

I chose this description as colleagues from AgriSeta confirmed that this is far off their current qualification frameworks and in my opinion is just one of a number of new digital jobs that SA is really unprepared for.

These two examples, and there are many more, show that South Africa has not “got it” when it comes to preparedness for Future Skills. Colleagues from other African countries give similar feedback.

Having spent many years in a corporate environment I was taught you should never raise a problem without also having a possible solution, so let me conclude with proposing some possible options of what we should be doing:

  • Ensuring that all Africans reach a basic level of digital, numerical and literacy skills
  • Develop mechanisms to measure learning not qualifications
  • Reduce the gap between the rate of change and the rate of response by all players in the education ecosystem
  • Develop a South African Atlas of Emerging Jobs to identify what are our versions of digital farming etc.
  • Develop curriculums and standards for the new jobs and skills
  • Utilize bilateral and multilateral agreements to create knowledge and skill sharing platforms,
  • Create and celebrate role models across the continent, showcasing possibilities and developing new mindsets, and
  • Most importantly, support and emulate initiatives such as Africa Code Week. As these initiatives bring together players in the ecosystem and have practical actions to reduce the digital skills gaps that exist in Africa because where there’s a skill there’s a way

Sherrie Donaldson, Brics Business Council Skills Development Working Group at Launch of Africa Code Week 2019

6 thoughts on “Africa Code Week Launch”

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