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Upskilling bright, young minds is a positive step towards success 

If you want to be able to make recommendations to your clients that are based on their needs, and your understanding of their options, rather than being vendor-led, then you need to have a team that understands the technical intricacies of a variety of platforms, not just one. This is currently a huge challenge for the tech sector due to the immense skills gap, particularly when it comes to emerging technologies. 

According to the 10th edition of the South African ICT Skills survey, “skills associated with the current set of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, blockchain, automation, data science and programming were found to be the scarcest.”

While it is possible to import these skills into the country, it is not a sustainable option for most companies; and it will hinder, rather than help us to close the skills gap we’ve experienced for many years. In order for South Africa to participate meaningfully in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), and to tackle the high unemployment rate, organisations must take the necessary steps to ensure the upskilling of current employees, and the education of the next generation, so that we have a greater local talent pool from which to draw.

Sustainable solutions

While many companies have graduate programmes aimed at building future business leaders, not enough of them have technical programmes designed to grow technical and business skills development. 

In August 2018, Dimension Data noticed an increase in demand from clients with regards to Robotic Process Automation (RPA). There were many conversations about the challenges that some of their clients were facing, and how they could be resolved through automation. 

When they began to investigate options for their clients, they realised that despite there being a number of RPA vendors in the space, there was a serious lack of skills in the country to manage the development and implementation of the robotic automation systems. This would impact their ability to address market opportunities.

Dimension Data decided to create a solution that was meaningful, for their business, and for South Africa and its youth. Now almost halfway through its inaugural year, Dimension Data’s 4IR Technical Accelerator Programme (TAP) is aimed at unemployed South African graduates under the age of 30, who have an interest in, and the ability to code and a passion for emerging technologies. Launched across social media in 2019, applicants from across the country were encouraged to step up and “Join the Revolution”. 

Within a few days there were over 500 applications, out of which, after a rigorous selection process, the final 16 were chosen. While the selectors were hoping to achieve a 50/50 split between men and women, only four of the interns are women, which is something they hope to resolve in the coming years as they encourage more female candidates to apply. The graduates come from diverse educational backgrounds and hold degrees and diplomas in maths, economics, geomatics, megatronics, and electrical and chemical engineering among others.

Creating well-rounded tech-experts

The interns started the intentionally fast, hard, and self-paced programme in November 2019 at Dimension Data’s offices at The Campus in Bryanston Gauteng. The aim of the programme is to build technical skills and the resilience that young technical talent needs to adapt to the constant change that is experienced in the industry. 

TAP’s aim is to create a well-rounded talent-pool for the country with skills in a number of automation technologies including UIPath, Microsoft and NICE. In addition, TAP is deepening their coding skills in numerous languages and data science platforms. 

Life and business skills

Soft skills such as design thinking, good financial management, working in fast-paced, competitive environments, collaboration, and public speaking have also been key focus areas of the programme. As part of the programme, they are encouraged to have the confidence to share their opinions and views in front of large audiences, so the interns are tasked with creating 10 minute Ted-talks which are assessed by internal panels, who have been impressed with the growth the group has achieved in such a short time. Each intern is partnered with a mentor and with a colleague from the Graduate Accelerator Programme, Dimension Data’s original graduate programme, so they are able to share experiences, learn and be supported by someone who understands what they are striving for and experiencing.

Meaningful opportunities

The programme has a strong theoretical side, and graduates are pushed to learn a lot in a relatively short space of time. It offers meaningful opportunities for candidates who complete the year upskilling themselves. While the theory modules are important, some of the biggest learnings these 16 will make come in the final six months as they shift to the practical experiential training. They will need to work in different client environments across the different systems within those environments, learning to deal with unique technical challenges, but also learning how to work with multiple personalities and stakeholders on various engagements. 

While Dimension Data does not guarantee placement after the year internship, though a number will likely be permanently retained, the company will assist in finding placements among client environments. The newly acquired skillsets will stand the interns in good stead in the marketplace, where their rare, sought-after skills will make them appealing to potential employers. 

Private-sector technical accelerator programmes such as this one are critical to decrease the skills gap in South Africa. There are a number of organisations who are attempting to digitally upskill their employees at present, the challenge is to identify the best skills to accelerate and the best methods of approaching upskilling. Dimension Data’s Technical Accelerator Programme is focused on identifying those specific areas where skills are in high demand and training individuals to successfully and confidently fill those roles. TAP is an ongoing annual programme and the company is looking forward to receiving applications when the next round launches.