Why SA’s youth need to pursue specialised skills

barloworld-logistics-2016In today’s fast-changing and technology-driven world of work, the skills and expertise required of employees, at every level, are in themselves becoming fluid and ever-changing, that’s according to Barloworld Logistics. The company says where job titles and roles were once fixed and specific, many are no longer relevant and fail to describe the tasks being performed and the hard-won expertise that is shaping next-generation companies. Indeed, in its latest global technology report, consulting firm Accenture coined the term “liquid workforce” to describe modern professionals and the way in which companies worldwide should be “innovating workforce strategies to be more fluid and flexible in three areas: skills development, project planning and organisation structure”.
Without a doubt, today’s disruptive and competitive business ecosystem demands that employees have specialised skills and develop expertise in niche areas. Companies need to adopt the ‘fluid’ mindset and approach described above to encourage the development of these skills, and also to incorporate them into the work stream. In just the past two years, new job titles have emerged and continue to emerge, namely UX Designer, Augmented Reality Designer and Internet of Things Architect. These simply didn’t exist just a few years ago – and it is near impossible to predict the exciting new titles that will arise as technology develops.

In its recent investigation into local youth unemployment and the skills gap, Barloworld Logistics explored the rise of these niche skills and questioned whether South Africa is supporting the youth with regards to their obtainment. Although many analysts and commentators are focusing on ‘future-proofing’ companies and even industries, there is little discussion around ‘future-proofing’ our youth and the young workforce.

“In a complex and volatile environment whereby many are complaining about a lack of job opportunities, we are suggesting that part of the problem may, in fact, lie with a lack of relevant skills and expertise among our young jobseekers,” says Shirley Duma, HR Director at Barloworld Logistics. “This problem is arguably being compounded by a rapidly evolving business environment in which technology is disrupting almost every industry sector and demanding highly specialised skills. The opening of Wits University’s Tshimologong is a good start in this regard.”

That said, however, both the private and public sector in South Africa need to do far more to prepare young learners and students for the new world of work.

“We should also look to global counterparts and organisations for guidance and best practices around what is not only a local but a pressing global skills conundrum,” adds Duma.

Indeed, in order to put the South African skills challenges into perspective, it is helpful to review opinions and commentaries on this subject from a global viewpoint.

Forecasting of industry and labour trends

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has reported that there are three major ‘pressure points’ in the chain of education:

  1. Skills and human capital;
  2. Job growth and technological change;
  3. Skills gap and skills churn.

Keith Breene, Senior Writer at the World Economic Forum, argues that “better forecasting of industry and labour-market trends is vital to allow governments, businesses and individuals to react quickly to change.”

Breene points out that the types of skills that employers need are changing all the time. He theorises that employees are under pressure to continually learn and adapt to evolving and emerging industries.

“Business leaders and managers are unable to find the right candidates for many positions across their industrial and commercial ventures, and it is a problem they foresee worsening as the need for specialisation and work-related skills grow,” he explains.

Given this global challenge, the WEF states that “education and labour policy” is an area requiring close review, and the organisation underscores the need for an overhaul of existing approaches and policies to “make them more reactive and relevant to the ever-changing market realities.”

Back to basics

Although the future world of work certainly does appear to be complex and tough to plan for, it is critical for local stakeholders to take heed of current gaps and take immediate steps towards addressing them. Several surveys, for instance, have pointed to a chronic shortage of engineers, software developers and skilled trades.

According to Manpower South Africa’s tenth annual Talent Shortage Survey, there has been a significant increase in the difficulty of filling positions. In 2014, Manpower reported that only 8% of South African employers surveyed had difficulty in filling job vacancies, but in 2015, 31% of employers reported difficulty. When employers were asked why they couldn’t fill jobs, 47% mentioned a lack of technical competencies or hard skills. Notably, 30% of local employers cited the lack of industry-specific qualifications or certifications in terms of skilled trades as a challenge, while 26% mentioned a lack of candidate experience. In addition, 19% of employers identified organisational factors as a hurdle, while 15% cited industry-specific qualifications and certifications in terms of professionals as a challenge.

“We clearly need to align education and training with the skills and expertise that today’s employers are looking for,” concludes Duma. “Looking ahead, our students need help in not only acquiring a stable foundation of technical skills and competencies but also the ability to adapt and learn new skills in the face of constant change.”

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