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The World Economic Forum’s guestimate that up to 20 million young people will join the African workforce annually over the next two decades makes the need to grow science technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills a priority if the continent is not to miss out on growth and employment opportunities offered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Mathieu du Plooy, managing director of professional services firm WSP in Africa, said: “It’s well respected that STEM education is a key lever for economic transformation, making the value of skilled people with engineering, environment sciences and green building skills immeasurable. These skills will form the foundation of the future workforce and are crucial to support sustainable growth and development on a continent targeted for its massive investment potential.”

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But, the potential inherent in African markets is impacted by diasporas. This is compounded by STEM capabilities being substantially under-represented in higher education when compared to other emerging and leading economies in the world. To put this into context, the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) previously asserted that South Africa is severely under-engineered compared to the international benchmark, and the number of engineers per capita in South Africa (3,166) falls significantly short of other developing countries.

Organisations need to think of long term benefits of the skills development value chain

“With specialist skill shortages and a constant need to recruit talent, addressing the problem means providing openings for young people as they start their careers. Additionally, a concerted effort is needed by stakeholders across basic and higher education. It is as important to provide learners with STEM-related classes when they begin their schooling as it is to manage the entire process all the way through to post-graduate programmes. In fact, the World Bank says only 6% of students across Africa enrol into masters degree programmes, with the number dwindling to 1% for PhD programmes,” said du Plooy.

Fortunately, pressure on organisations to do more when it comes to their Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) responsibilities means initiatives in STEM education can be targeted to not only deliver the skills development needed for young, aspiring professionals but also help reach their fiduciary goals.

This will require organisations across industry sectors to focus beyond short-term needs that show immediate economic benefits and incorporate a longer-term vision of how fundamental change can be applied across the skills development value chain.

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The global pandemic is challenging companies to rethink what skills are relevant to their needs

“The past 16-months have had their challenges and caused significant disruption worldwide. This has resulted in many companies rethinking traditional business practices and approaches, including the skills they require to remain relevant. We have undertaken this process and are now more than ever looking for talent to recruit in most parts of the business,” added du Plooy.

Rethinking business practices offers the perfect chance to shape a new vision for upskilling and reskilling employees. This creates the opportunity to partner with the education sector to help drive skills development programmes that better reflect the needs of businesses today and into the future with the Fourth Industrial Revolution reshaping how people live and work.

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Africa needs to coordinate skills development on a continental approach

This reinvention can also enable improved regional collaboration between countries on the continent. For example, South African skilled professionals could bring their experience to bear on infrastructure development projects across the continent in places where large-scale infrastructure is being newly implemented.

If more countries look at ways of working with their neighbours to develop regional zones of STEM expertise, the continent will be able to drastically reshape how it goes about skills development, training, and even job creation.

“Because Africa consists of so many developing nations often funding availability is directly impacted by global and local market developments, trends and volatility – particularly public and major projects. This has a trickledown effect on project planning and pipelines, and as a result the ability to retain in-country project experience for STEM professionals.

“But, if done correctly, collaborating and sharing knowledge across borders when such projects do get underway not only enhances the exposure for these professionals, but such opportunities can be leveraged to create programmes for upskilling and training of young STEM professionals, thereby growing regional expertise.

“Ultimately, it comes down to creating enough opportunity to develop the skills required to the benefit of future advancement in Africa,” concluded du Plooy.

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