Digital skills demand – A big opportunity for universities

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) has urged universities and higher technical education institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa to improve their digital skills training programmes to cater for its prediction that over 230 million jobs in the region will need digital skills by 2030.

The study, Digital Skills in Sub-Saharan Africa: Spotlight on Ghana, was produced in cooperation with global strategy firm LEK Consulting.

According to Sergio Pimenta, IFC vice president for the Middle East and Africa, the already unmet demand presents public tertiary institutions and private higher education operators with a US$130 billion opportunity to train the future workforce in digital skills in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The report states that a global digital revolution is underway and is not likely to bypass Africa. In Ghana, for example, over 9 million jobs will require digital skills by 2030, effectively translating to about 20 million training openings that will need over US$4 billion in training revenue potential.

“The digital skills sector is ripe for rapid expansion and investment,” said Pimenta.

Economic growth

The report, which draws insights from the World Bank’s World Development Report (2019), sheds light on the crucial need for digital skills as a driver of economic growth and competitiveness. It highlights the mandate of the African higher education system as a primary agent of transforming lives by expanding employment prospects in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Although the largest opportunities will be felt in business-to-business and business-to-government training for basic, intermediate and advanced digital skills, high demand for digitisation and automation of agriculture, manufacturing and other services is emerging.

Whereas basic digital skills that include web research and basic software use are common in most Sub-Saharan African countries, intermediate and advanced skills in digital marketing, machine learning and various aspects of artificial intelligence are in short supply. “But the demand for advanced digital skills is expected to grow at a faster rate in the region than in other global markets,” said Ashwin Assomull, a partner at LEK Consulting’s global education practice unit.

It is against this background that the new study faulted the current training in computer literacy and application of technology in most universities and technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite poor student academic outcomes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, caused in the main by limited access to technology-based learning materials and qualified teachers, the study points to a mismatch of skills taught and those required by employers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Outdated lessons

According to the IFC, universities need to urgently make digital education curriculum shifts with an understanding that 50% of subject knowledge acquired during the first year of a four-year technical degree will be outdated by the time a student graduates.

“What students need is an adaptive set of skills that will ensure digital readiness,” said Dionisis Kolokotsas, the head of inclusive and sustainable development at Google.

The study calls for short courses, typically three to 12 months, with a mix of instructional methods geared toward practical learning rather than theoretical understanding. The focus of digital skills should be on graduate employability and market demand.

The study finds that although digital skills are perceived to be among the top seven skills needed by the future global workforce – which are critical thinking, communication, problem-solving, leadership, collaboration, computer literacy and application of technology – these skills are undersupplied globally and most particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Highlighting Ghana’s digital skills labour market, the study says between now and 2030, the country will have business-to-consumer opportunities for about 700,000 people. The study extrapolates that during the same timeframe Ghana could have business-to-business and business-to-government opportunities that could reach about 18 million people who would require digital skills, and nearly US$3.5 billion in revenue.

That makes the situation more urgent, taking into account the fact that employers anticipate more than 40% of skills required for the workforce will change before 2022. “At least 50% of employees in the sector will need to learn different or more advanced digital skills,” the report notes.

New training models

The report urges universities, vocational skills providers, boot-camps or business-to-business curriculum providers to focus on new models of training in intermediate and advanced digital skills. According to Danielle Robinson, a gender and digital jobs specialist at the World Bank, traditional models of training are failing due to rapid technological changes that are profoundly disrupting labour markets.

“Fortunately, many new forms of work in the digital economy offer advantages and the ability to work from remote locations,” said Robinson and her associates in a World Bank study, Digital Jobs for Youth: Young women in the digital economy.

However, the IFC warns that adequate preparation and designing of courses in digital skills will only be an initial step towards fulfilling the job market gap in Sub-Saharan African countries.

“Access to computing in universities and other tertiary institutions will not essentially address the problem unless there will be commitment and a comprehensive approach to addressing specific training needs of the job market,” said Alejandro Caballero, a senior education specialist at the IFC and a lead researcher on the IFC report.

The report urges stakeholders to consider teaching digital skills not only as a business opportunity, but a chance to reconceive the future of work across the continent.

Towards this goal, the IFC suggests that African higher technical education should engage faculty with practical experience to teach successful digital courses. Digital skills are inherently practical, and staff that can teach by example and understand business applications for these skills can ensure their relevance to market needs.