Partnerships, rural development and internships are key to meeting the challenges of 4IR

Published On: 12 October 2021|

The importance of internships and collaboration in the skills preparation space was mirrored by two speakers responding to panel presentations during a breakaway session of Universities South Africa’s World of Work Strategy Group in the past week. The session was titled Universities and the 4IR Labour Market and the sub-theme was Technological Disruption; the National Agenda on 4IR.

Responding to the panel presentations referred to above at Universities South Africa’s 2nd Higher Education Conference were Dr Stanley Mpofu (above left), Chairperson of Higher Education Information Technology South Africa (HEITSA) and Chief Information officer at the University of the Witwatersrand, and Mr Wayne Adams (above right), Chief Executive Officer at the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services Sector Educating and Training Authority (merSETA). USAf jointly hosted this conference with the Council on Higher Education (CHE) from 6 to 8 October.

Dr Mpofu stressed the importance of the availability of connectivity in rural areas, saying it was fundamental criterion for preparation of young people for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). He told delegates: “For interest, I am connecting from a rural area, Utrecht, in KwaZulu-Natal, where I am surrounded by the poverty talked about by many of the speakers at this conference.”


Following on a thread begun by one of the session’s main speakers, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala on the crippling effects of unemployment, Dr Mpofu said it was crucial to consider interns as part of the process of developing skills within a specific environment. Professor Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the Acting Chairperson of USAf’s World of Work Strategy Group. He had earlier called unemployment a national crisis.

“I’m talking about collaboration between industry and the universities – or any other areas that teach technology,” Mpofu said. “The practical part of getting a job normally presents a challenge because employers want to know applicants’ experience history. So, exposing the young people to internships is important.

“I’m proud to say that since I joined Wits in 2017, I have produced more than 150 interns in ICT — most of them through collaborations with companies which provide ICT training. Most have since been employed.”

It was a point that Adams strongly agreed with: “Regarding the unemployed workforce, we must not lose sight of the current workforce that finds itself in companies where there are technology changes. We need to build capacity in reskilling and up-skilling.

“Our biggest challenge, particularly in the TVET colleges, is the ability to start such initiatives,” he said.

Some of the delegates who were linked online to the World of Work Strategy Group’s breakaway session on Universities and the 4IR Labour Market.


The merSETA pilot project

Adams added: “As the merSETA, we embarked a few years ago on a pilot project to establish a learning factory based on 4IR technologies. The idea is to expand the project countrywide when it succeeds.”

Endorsing Dr Mpofu’s call for collaboration, he said the project was made possible through a partnership with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Collaboration is key

Referencing a point made earlier in the conference by another conference speaker, Mr Daan Du Toit, Deputy-Director General, International Cooperation and Resources in the Department of Science and Innovation, Adams said: “I fully agree with Mr Du Toit on the subject of collaboration. As the merSETA, we are fortunate in that we have several partnerships with higher education institutions across the country. We will continue to pursue these connections to fulfil our mandate. Hopefully these will begin to assist in addressing societal challenges.”

Dr Mpofu believes that the rural areas could be developed so “people don’t have to go to Joburg or Cape Town or Durban to find employment…Are we creating possibilities where entrepreneurship can also be done in the rural areas?

“Planning from government and universities should include how to distribute this 4IR economy we want by making sure that it is distributed across the board. In other words, create your own technology hub in the mountains here in Utrecht, or in Tzaneen. Only creating hubs in the city draws everyone to the city — making rural areas places of neglect,” he said.

The need for rural development

He added that in the rural areas, students often do not have the opportunity to use computers saying it was his belief that it is “too late if computers are only accessible when students get to university.” He also wondered whether institutions were producing the right degrees and the right skills relevant to the current marketplace.

“These are the challenges I see: how do you preach 4IR in the absence of connectivity infrastructure? It makes sense that certain basics have to be in place. I subscribe to the thinking of Professor Marwala, who says education needs its own spectrum. When you get sponsorships and partnerships, and when the necessary infrastructure is in place, only then can we start talking about elements that we need to develop enough to get on the 4IR road.”

Adams said a common refrain at the conference was that the role of universities was to supply student professionals. “I think this should include our TVET and basic education sector. We need to build our pipeline from basic education up to the TVET colleges and achieve a seamless progression into Higher Education institutions,” he said.

Infrastructure needed as delivery mechanism

He said to enable this, infrastructure was needed as a delivery mechanism for 4IR. “Our own research within the merSETA supports and identifies 4IR as a key driver – and this applies to all six sub-sectors of the merSETA — not to the same extent but that clearly indicates that there is a huge need for these skills.”

Human capital, Adams said, would help make South Africa competitive while also helping reduce the high unemployment. “What is encouraging is that in most of the countries where this new technology is being adopted, unemployment numbers are small because of their ability to compete on a global scale. I also acknowledge that there is a concern by our labour constituency that 4IR will reduce the workforce.”

He identified four interventions needed to develop human capital:

  • Short skills programmes
  • Workplace based learning
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Development programmes

“One of the biggest problems experienced in the SETA world is the time it takes to develop curriculum, particularly at the intermediary level. We need to find ways to fast-track this. Technology is not going to wait for us to come up with the required curriculum programmes. If we do not act quickly, we will be left lagging behind,” he concluded.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.