The overall unemployment rate in South Africa as of March 2020 was 30.1% according to Statistics SA. To put this into perspective, this means around one in three people can’t find gainful employment in this country.

The unemployment rate for Youth – those aged 15-24 – is significantly higher at a staggering 59%. Meanwhile, on the other side of the skills chasm lie organisations desperate for skilled people who can fill roles in trade, management and sales.

And this was before the pandemic hit.

While the latest unemployment figures aren’t out yet, it’s feasible that the numbers are only going to increase, as many businesses have shed staff to survive the lockdown and others have closed altogether. As of September 2020, Stats SA’s predicted rate of joblessness will exceed 35% in the years ahead.

Skills needed more than ever

Ironically, the country needs skilled people more than ever. People who have difficult-to-find skill-sets are currently critical for the growth of the economy and in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

It is therefore also critical that there be sweeping changes that will allow for people to learn valuable, transferable skills that are not only relevant to skills demand, but aimed at those who need them the most.

Creating future employment

In July of 2020, Microsoft South Africa announced the details of a development programme, which aims to fight unemployment caused by the pandemic. The initiative, which also offers free courses for high-demand jobs and reduced fees for exams, aims to help 25 million people worldwide gain marketable digital skills by the end of the year.

Research undertaken by Microsoft and IDC shows that cloud computing alone is set to generate more than 515,000 job opportunities across key markets in EMEA by 2022. People with the skills to fill these positions are therefore vital to any country’s recovery efforts.

To help provide people who have lost their jobs to the pandemic acquire these skills, and countries to recover economically, Microsoft has partnered with LinkedIn and Github. The partnership, called Microsoft’s “Global Skills Initiative”, brings together the best of the three companies’ collective resources to analyse data and understand which are the most in-demand roles.

Microsoft aims to offer learning and certifications for the identified roles to equip job seekers with the tools they need to get them hired.

Social and technology skills development

The effects of the pandemic aside, embracing and making use of the 4IR remains an important step for South Africa to move forward with its development.

But especially in the post-COVID world, people from the hardest-hit communities and industries will need to learn new skills to re-join the workforce. They simply must have the requisite knowledge for the tech-focused roles that will be in even greater demand as the 4IR kicks into high gear post-pandemic.

So how can organisations focus on addressing the skills gap? Where do they look to see where they are falling behind? What tools can people pick up to drive their own advancement into the areas where skills are scarce?

The first step

The first step is to look to business programmes designed specifically to address skills development.

Change must come from a collaboration between both the private and public sectors, a collaboration that places a much-needed emphasis on digital literacy, Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Maths (STEAM). The educational platforms that inspire design thinking, creative problem solving, and innovation slot neatly into some of the world’s biggest skills gaps.

And this is exactly where Microsoft is stepping in with its Global Skills Initiative that has committed to help 25 million people across the globe find employment in the post-COVID world.

There are other companies doing what they can like Lead Change Developments, Red and Yellow, Woolworths as well as free online courses from sites like Udemy, The Shaw Academy, and much more. Microsoft’s efforts are, however, being executed on a much larger scale.

Easily-accessed and relevant

Skills development opportunities need to become more easily available and they need to be relevant beyond what they offer or how free their offering is, but also how they offer it.

Even before the pandemic, a free course in Johannesburg is as unattainable as a paid-for course down the road for those who live in rural areas and have no funds for accommodation, or internet access. Skills development solutions need to be holistic; they need to be accessible, and they need to be targeted.

However, as these opportunities become increasingly available to those who need them, it does beg the question as to which skills they should focus on to ensure they are relevant when training is completed.

Data-driven Insights Point The Way

By exploring its data with powerful analytics tools, Microsoft has narrowed down the range of skills it is offering through its Global Skills Initiative by identifying areas where skills are needed most.

Roles like Digital Marketer, Project Manager, Data Analyst, and Software Developer have all been flagged by Microsoft as being key to any digital-centric future.

And as Microsoft owns many popular digital platforms and products that are currently being used in organisations across the globe, they are also offering free access to their online Microsoft Learn platform as part of the Global Skills Initiative. This helps people learn Microsoft products, and develop the skills needed to implement and use them effectively, which dramatically boosts their employability.

Keep learning

The partnership with LinkedIn also allows Microsoft to offer free access to LinkedIn Learning content. As you might already know from our previous LinkedIn Learning coverage, it’s a learning platform that lets companies offer tailored educational courses for their staff. There is a wide range of course content on the site, covering everything from entry-level digital literacy skills all the way up to advanced skills for technical roles.

Even once people are employed again, access to LinkedIn learning allows employees to keep on developing their skills, which facilitates their promotion within the business in the future. It’s a future-proofing move that will serve many people very well.

Through their Global Skills Initiative, Microsoft is offering free access to a library of high-quality learning paths through LinkedIn Learning between now and the 31st of March, 2021.

A Pursuit Worth Embarking On

For both the business and the individual it is important to start looking at the skills challenge as a pursuit worth embarking on. A complex and difficult pursuit, of that there is little doubt, but one that will have incredibly rewarding results.

Challenge Accepted

As 2020 winds down, and the economic and social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic plays out, it’s important to keep these challenges in mind as business applies itself to recovery.

But as the old saying goes, in adversity there is opportunity. By accepting the challenge to find new ways to rise up and leveraging all of the educational tools we have, along with the goodwill of bigger companies willing to pitch in and help with the post-COVID recovery, we can only succeed in the long term.

[Photo: School photo created by Freepik]