A Q&A with BT on how to deal with Africa’s digital skills gap

Bernadette Wightman, Managing Director for the Asia, Middle East and Africa (AMEA) region at BT, shares her insight on the skills gap issue and how it can be addressed

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has rightly been identified as one of the world’s most exciting economic growth prospects over the mid to long term.

Home to a market of 1.2 billion people and counting, the region’s GDP hit almost $1.7 trillion in 2018, the World Bank forecasting growth of 2.6 percent this year.

Indeed, SSA is home to four of the world’s fastest growing economies at the moment (Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Rwanda), and the potential for this economic picture to be further transformed by digitisation is massive. Almost all major multinational tech companies are active on continent, and for good reason.

BT is one such corporation looking to impart the benefits of digital onto African economies, not least through its efforts to pass on skills to locals, as evidenced by work in South Africa in particular.

This is vital in ensuring the region’s workforce if futureproofed and ready for the digital economy, the well-documented skills gap presenting a significant challenge to SSA fully realising its industry 4.0 potential. Here, Bernadette Wightman, Managing Director for the Asia, Middle East and Africa (AMEA) region at BT, answers our questions on the issue.

Africa Outlook (AfO): A bit about yourself to start with – what attracted you to a career in the telecommunications industry and to working at BT more specifically?

Bernadette Wightman (BW): I have always held a strong passion for technology and the potential it has to change lives and better the world. I am also very passionate about people and the development of talent. The passion for both drew me to the field of technology and with a particular focus on people and change management.

Throughout my career, I have been able to work within corporates who share this vision, which is also what led me to join BT. I have and continued to place a strong focus on people and culture, which has resulted in industry-wide recognition – including best place to work awards. I regard myself as a champion for inclusion and in particular driving diversity initiatives, including co-creating a programme consisting of workshops, mentoring, peer networking and group support, which over 1,000 women have benefitted from globally.

AfO: Why, in your opinion, is it such an exciting industry for Africa at the moment?

BW: The telecommunications (and technology) industry is exciting across Africa as it is a high growth market filled with ample opportunity that can be leveraged on to change lives. As the world catapults towards a more connected society, Africa has the opportunity to learn from global markets, to leapfrog ahead and invest in technology transformation strategies that can empower real and positive change.

Digital literacy, improved healthcare and access to even the most basic of needs can be made possible through technological innovation across Africa. Telecommunications in Africa can transform the lives of hundreds and even thousands of people – the potential is almost unimaginable. The possibilities that technology opens up for Africa are exciting, and it is what drives our passion.

AfO: Could you introduce the problem of skills shortages on the continent? What is the size of the challenge that is being faced?

BW: The technology skills shortage is not unique to Africa, but is one that is far reaching, impacting countries across the globe. Technology is evolving at such a rate that it is almost impossible to keep up, meaning that with each year that passes the skills gap is only widening. Furthermore, an aging workforce only adds another element of strain to this existing challenge.

Global research that BT carried out in 2017, based on a survey conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), noted that 75 percent of global CEOs were confident about their digital strategy, yet it also highlights that the biggest barriers to achieving this are inflexible technology, lack of technology skills and security concerns.

The result of this is that many companies today, regardless of their efforts to transform digitally to benefit from the technology advances available, don’t possess the right skills needed to leverage digital technologies effectively. This can impact the company’s ability to innovate and achieve sustainable growth in what is not only a volatile, but competitive market.

AfO: Equally, what needs to be done to begin to address this problem? Does the education curriculum need to be revisited?

BW: There are a number of areas that require focus to change this current reality. Universities, businesses and industry experts need to work together to ensure that the technology skills needed for the future are being incorporated into education programmes, as a means to slowly improve on closing this gap. Digital skills are critical to the growth and survival of economies, however, fixing the digital and technology skills shortage requires effort from public and private entities.

Further to education programmes, businesses preparing for the digital future need to ensure that they are also investing and spending time and effort on developing solid training programmes, to not only ensure that staff are fully equipped to drive the digital strategy forward, but that new skills are continuously being taught and knowledge gained.

Over and above these critical steps, businesses also need to look to the younger generations – the millennials and generation Z – to find and retain the best skills and talent for continued business success. The generations that are growing up with technology at their fingertips and don’t know or understand a world without tech.

AfO: Do businesses also need to do more by providing the opportunities for personal development?

BW: When targeting the younger generation of worker, there are a number of aspects a business needs to consider. This generation of worker is not the ‘traditional worker’ many businesses have become accustomed to. Businesses have the opportunity to capture the hearts and minds of the younger generation now, and this means understanding their needs, aspirations and goals, and being able to amicably meet these, to ensure their ‘buy in’ to the business.

The younger generation worker of today doesn’t just want flexibility and job security – they also want to achieve personal goals. The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2019 found that travel and seeing the world was at the top of millennials’ list of aspirations. What is also interesting is that this survey noted that millennials were also attracted to making a positive impact in their communities or society at large (46 percent) over having children and starting families (39 percent). The survey by Deloitte also shows that dissatisfaction with pay, along with a lack of advancement and development opportunities, are still the top reasons why millennials and gen Z change jobs as often as they do.

This supports the notion that personal development opportunities are important and an area that businesses must consider when seeking talent from the generation pool.

AfO: Is BT itself partaking in any CSR or other initiatives in an attempt to solve the problem of skills shortages?

BW: Absolutely. BT in South Africa recently unveiled a fully equipped computer lab at the Sibusisiwe Comp Tech High School in Kwa-Zulu Natal. The sponsorship of this computer lab for the Sibusisiwe Comp Tech High School and its learners’ forms part of our priority to build a culture of tech literacy and to invest in digital skills to improve lives, supporting us to achieve our desired vision around ICT skills development.

Furthermore, and on a global scale, in 2018 BT joined forces with universities, businesses and industry experts to tackle the digital skills gap challenge in the UK. BT forms part of a consortium that received government funding for a new Institute of Coding (IoC) to train the next generation of digital specialists.

AfO: Looking ahead, are there any forecasts that you can make? Are you optimistic?

BW: I am optimistic that, together, the IT skills shortage challenge around the world can be overcome. To futureproof organisations, businesses need to work on their recruitment and retention strategies of the younger generations, and their preferences, now.

By understanding what millennials and gen Zs want, we can look at how to better attract them into our organisations. Global organisations are already supporting international assignments and job swaps as ways to ensure skills and business knowledge are available and shared where required. And while being important tools to generate developmental opportunities, what is becoming evident is that these steps are making the companies the preferred choice to work for.