Government sets ambitious data science skills target

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As part of a partnership strategy, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) says it will train about 50 000 data scientists in SA.

This was announced by DCDT minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, speaking during her keynote address at the women in STEM webinar hosted by the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation and the African Union this week.

Ndabeni-Abrahams did not provide further details of the plan, only stating: “This is a partnership we have done with the Department of Higher Education and Coursera – the online platform. We then reached out to the industry to say can you provide the devices for them and then we are looking at connecting those,” said Ndabeni-Abrahams.

“Governments should make sure they come up with clear strategies in terms of human capacity development and investing in STEM.”

The minister previously noted the 50 000 figure at last month’s graduation ceremony of young people that completed the government-led 12-month data science course, indicating this would be the second cohort to join the skills development initiative.

In partnership with the Media Information and Communication Technologies Sector Education and Training Authority and various stakeholders, the DCDT is looking to address SA’s skills gap by equipping young people with skills needed for fields such as data science, robotics, artificial intelligence, drone piloting, cyber security and software development.

In line with the first steps of the programme, the DCDT kick-started training for the first cohort, consisting of 1 000 young people, on 1 June 2019. Last month, a total of 135 received their certificates for completing the 12-month data science course.

Government has a bold vision to train one million young people in data science and related skills by 2030, which was announced by the minister in 2018.

Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Data scientist dearth

The minister and industry commentators alike have stressed SA’s need for data science skills to harness the power of data and come up with predictive models that will enable departments to mitigate risks, reduce costs, increase revenue and optimise limited resources.

Globally, the shortfall for data scientists is projected to be between five million and 10 million.

Furthermore, key projects such as the Square Kilometre Array and MeerKAT require these skills to interpret and analyse the vast amount of data that will be produced by the radio telescopes.

Shaun Dippnall, co-founder of Explore Group and CEO of Explore Data Science Academy, says it’s critical that the country has young people trained in data science.

“More and more, both locally and globally, the demand for practical skills outweighs the demand for theoretical skills. For South Africa to remain competitive, to deliver value and service, in both public and private sectors, we need data scientists and data engineers.”

He continues that as more businesses undergo digital transformation, driven by the need to remain locally and globally competitive, so the data science demand grows.

On the possibility of training 50 000 young people in one year to become data scientists, Dippnall believes the ministry’s goal is realistic.

“With 800 000 matriculants every year and many more tertiary students, training 50 000 data scientists in a year is very possible. Training delivered via immersive edutech platforms makes the scale possible.

“Resources to scale the training include ubiquitous bandwidth and focused spending of existing funds (skills development, bursary and learnership). There is more than enough talent locally to reach the scale of 50 000 per year.”

Based on tracking the graduates from the Explore Data Science Academy, Dippnall says the average starting salary for a data scientist is close to R400 000 per annum.

GP gets on board

Meanwhile, the Department of e-Government has also introduced an ICT skills training programme aimed at equipping youth in Gauteng with technological abilities.

The department says the initiative, established in partnership with Huawei, is to give young people in the province an edge in their respective career paths, adding that it will take place in all Gauteng regions.

It says youth in these areas will be trained in coding and artificial intelligence.

ICT skills are among competencies that have been identified as essential components for Gauteng’s future economic growth and a key requirement for the achievement of the Growing Gauteng Together 2020 strategy, it states.

Gauteng MEC of finance and head of the Department of e-Government Nomantu Nkomo-Ralehoko explains: “In today’s age, people with ICT skills are in demand by employers in many sectors throughout the world.”

Nkomo-Ralehoko said equipping Gauteng youth with ICT skills will open many doors in their careers, even those unimagined. “This initiative is created to help you gain these unique skills and qualifications which will serve as a starting point towards your future.”

One of the participants in the initiative is Victor Katagane, a small business owner in Tsakane, Springs.

Katagane notes that technology is part of his everyday life; it is no longer about only making a career of it.

“I know these skills are going to help me build a better business as I will have the edge of being able to do other extraordinary things through technology. But most importantly, I want to be able to impart these skills to others in my community. Technology is now part of our lives and a lot of people are still afraid to embrace it. I want to change that.”

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