The basic education sector in South Africa needs to increase the number of institutions that focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the so-called Stem subjects). It is crucial for the country to change its education strategy from one where pupils get a diploma after grade 12, to one where pupils get a job.
Improving Stem and computer subjects is essential, and we need to look at what can be done to fast-track growth in the economy. Currently, there is no means of easily getting employment for matriculants because the needs of the real world and their skills are miles apart.
To change this, we simply must create a generation of workers that can enable a knowledge economy. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is leaving us no choice but to acknowledge and plan for the loss of unskilled jobs. Unfortunately, our education sector isn’t doing enough to advance subjects that will enable learners to get jobs in the ICT sector. The declining pass rate in these subjects isn’t helping matters either.
Universities and companies are introducing separate admission tests called NBTs, or national bench tests — evaluation methods to sift out youth fresh out of schools who have not got the relevant education. We accept new lower pass rates for youth, which lands up producing the wrong workforce for current business demand. When does reality set in?
Another issue is that the Stem subjects aren’t popular and are viewed as difficult by students and teachers. They are also thought of as “male” subjects, another perception that needs to change. These perceptions perpetuate the cycle of poor performance and dismal pass rates in these subjects. We see the result of these perceptions in the low numbers of women entering the tech arena.
It is widely known that people and skills are one of the most crucial factors in growing a country and its economy. And it has a follow-on effect. Today’s generation will pass skills onto, and boost the productivity of, future generations. Skills and education have a real impact on innovation, and growth and development are dependent on a supply of knowledgeable and skilled workers.
South Africa is lagging due to the poor delivery and adoption of the Stem subjects, and what is needed to meet these educational challenges is collaboration between government, educational bodies and the private sector.
Investing in our youth is the way forward, and to do that we need to invest in Stem skills. We need to deliver high-quality education — education that will see learners walking into jobs and building up our tech sector. This is what will guarantee that our youth will grow up to be valuable, contributing members of society.
Why can’t successful companies’ executives participate on disadvantaged school boards in exchange for broad based black economic empowerment points? This will force a level of business participation that will really bring business into the fold to grow our youth and improve education. Schools are all just businesses at the end of the day. It may just be time that we stop seeing executives or capitalists as the enemy but rather enablers of a new education ecosystem. So many of the current BBBEE levels for companies have nothing to do with addressing the single most important issue we have as a country: youth unemployment or lack of the right skills for our youth to participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
There’s no doubt that innovation comes from Stem, and our learners today will be doing jobs we haven’t even imagined yet. We need to remember that Stem is ever-changing and will never stop growing. The umbrella under which Stem subjects fall keeps on getting bigger. Think about big data, the Internet of things, cloud and mobility. Not to mention artificial intelligence, and information security. All these were merely ideas not too many years ago, and now they are the hottest trends.
- Richard Firth is chairman and CEO of MIP