The Future of Digital Work Depends On More Than Tech Skills

Software skills may be essential for much of the work of the 21st century, but candidates also need softer skills to be reliable employees.

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With the rest of the world’s population aging, Africa will become home to more than a quarter of the world’s total under-25 population by 2030. By the end of this decade, the number of people in the continent’s workforce is expected to have increased more than the rest of the world’s combined. That makes the region a major growth spot for digital talent and, therefore, a crucial source for economic dynamism worldwide.

Yet the continent is still producing relatively few workers with software and other tech-oriented skills. The problem is certainly not demand; it now has a substantial and growing tech sector. Africa has an emerging IT ecosystem, including a growing crop of digital entrepreneurs, startups, and innovation centers, and it is one of the fastest-growing tech markets in the world. Internet use has expanded greatly, with South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, Ghana, Tunisia, and Morocco leading the way. Tech giants based in the U.S. and China, including Alibaba, Huawei, IBM, and Microsoft, are making large investments in Africa. Homegrown companies, like eCampus, Interswitch, Jumia, Konga, M-Pesa, Paystack, and Rubies Bank, are also becoming key parts of Africa’s tech ecosystem.

With this booming demand for workers, some Africa-based companies complain of their inability to attract employees with sufficient digital skills. The continent needs more young people with the proper skills for digital work, but imparting the right skills to aspiring young African workers is often a challenge.

One solution is to use digital technologies to train young people remotely. This is a necessary approach, given that most Africans live in rural areas with limited educational offerings and variable internet access. Western tech companies have been motivated to develop low-cost internet solutions to tap into the huge workforce and achieve economies of scale. These companies have embarked on mass capacity- and skills-building programs for local workers, and now the Asian giants are following suit.

The good news is that so far, these low-cost, online courses are proving to be an effective means of delivering technical training. After a few weeks or months of instruction, trainees can work as software developers, without a college degree. Data science and business analytics are also popular areas of study. Trainees are entering what former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty has called “new collar” employment, which she expects to replace many blue-collar occupations.

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