South Africa's higher learning institutions must up their game and increase the number of educational programmes that prepare students for the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) era.
So says Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) minister Naledi Pandor, noting that only 11 South African universities offer course modules in 4IR and related fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.
"If we intend to take full advantage of 4IR, all our universities and colleges should be offering such courses," she says.
Pandor is not the first government official to sound off about readiness for Industry 4.0.
Last year, Pandor's counterpart and higher education deputy minister, Buti Manamela, said preparing the future workforce for the next era calls on higher education institutions to embrace new ways of teaching.
Manamela expressed that learning should take place in an environment that is developmental and innovative in its approach.
Getting ready for 4IR
With Industry 4.0 on the horizon, the digital component of most jobs will accelerate. To future-proof their careers, employees will be required to have different skill sets in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, drone technology, cyber security and the Internet of things.
With this in mind, SA's political leaders have renewed efforts to make sure the current and future workforce will be able to respond to a demand-led skills development system.
According to Pandor, the DHET has developed a list of occupations in high demand (OIHD) to support enrolment planning at universities and technical and vocational education and training colleges.
This aligns with efforts to identify skills needs in the country and to give young people the opportunities to meet their aspirations.
The minister explains the list of approximately 370 occupations helps young people make informed decisions regarding their subject choices in grade 10, which they can use to make informed choices regarding fields of study for further and higher education.
It also assists the National Skills Fund, Sector Education and Training Authority and other organisations that provide bursaries and scholarships to allocate resources directed to occupations that are in high demand.
"The 2018 list of OIHD identified white-collar occupations in information and communications technology, including ICT project manager, data management manager, application development manager, information technology manager, information systems director, ICT systems analyst, software developer, ICT risk specialist, programmer analyst, developer programmer, and applications programmer."
Answering 4IR demands
Some higher learning institutions have already modified their degree programmes to answer the skills demand of the fourth industrial revolution.
For degrees that focus on technology, for example, the University of Pretoria (UP), which counts itself among the top research institutions in Africa, incorporates Industry 4.0 concepts in all the subjects. These are AI courses, programming, strategic business and computer engineering.
Professor Alta van der Merwe, deputy dean at the University of Pretoria's Engineering, Built Environment and IT (EBIT) faculty, says the institution has 32 degree programmes that involve the newest technologies and focus on skills development to serve the demands of industry.
Van der Merwe continues to say the university is involved in advanced research and incorporates new technologies into courses to meet demands.
Rennie Naidoo, an associate professor at the School of IT, Department of Informatics at UP, says the university's EBIT faculty has already begun steps to prepare for 4IR.
Naidoo goes on to say from a research perspective, these include the new future transportation and sustainable future smart cities infrastructure and research programme and the world-leading Big Data and Data Science Institute.
He explains: "The activities in smart cities and transportation relate to the active and continuous collection of data regarding transportation users' activities and experiences, infrastructure condition and user-infrastructure interaction.
"The institute for big data and data science's focus is on data analytics and the development of new, efficient machine learning and statistical learning approaches to extract hidden knowledge from small to very large data sets."
According to Naidoo, the faculty has established four externally funded research chairs in AI, machine leaning, cyber security and data science, all focusing on a strategic niche area related to the 4IR.
"Our department of Information Science has launched a research, teaching and learning facility through its new virtual reality and interaction lab. Our department of informatics has a mobile development lab and a user experience lab that provide our students with a creative space to learn about and experience current trends in technology design."
Naidoo concludes by saying the university also offers new degree programmes. "Our Bachelor of Information Technology, Information Systems aims to develop skilled information and communication technology professionals that are in high demand in South Africa. Our Computer Science department has already added a stream in big data science to its master's offerings."