We urgently need to understand the new world of work

A dramatic, quick-changing momentum is happening in what we call fit-for-purpose skills – Salesforce programme manager Ursula Fear.

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SIMON BROWN: I’m chatting with Ursula Fear, Salesforce senior intelligent programme manager. Ursula, I appreciate the time today. South Africa has a critical skills gap locally. I don’t think there’s any dispute around that. We’ve seen it from the Department of Home Affairs. At the Sona [State of the Nation Address] earlier in the year the president suggested we import skills. To me that seems to be a bit of a short-term stopgap. We should rather – and you certainly agree – be focusing on growing our homegrown talent.

URSULA FEAR: I think very important there is an urgency around digital skills. Interestingly enough, I believe digital skills can be our largest industry in South Africa, bigger than agriculture and mining. So I think in terms of putting the focus on growing local skills, 100%; what we need to remember is that we also need time in the seat in order for us to develop expert specialist skills.

So I think there’s an urgency around how we address the development of skills and how we very importantly grow experience. That’s one of our biggest challenges – and credentials and certifications are absolutely critical. They go without saying.

But what we actually have to solve as a country is how we all come together, and how we solve practical experience, real life experience.

SIMON BROWN: I take your point on that. Absolutely, the degrees and tertiary certifications are hugely important, but it’s about that work experience, which I suppose is mentoring. It could be as simple as interns, but it’s something which we don’t seem to be doing enough of. And in a sense, I’m thinking of the 65-year-olds who have been forced into retirement and haven’t passed that knowledge on.

URSULA FEAR: I think what we are requiring is a completely new mindset, and that goes from how we train. That talks to our regulatory training infrastructure, whether it’s the South African Qualifications Authority, the National Qualification Framework, and all of those different statuary bodies that work around building skills in South Africa. We need to have a mind-shift change there in terms of addressing what is fit for purpose and how we grow fit-for-purpose skills.

Part of our challenge in the regulatory training world is that very often [it is] not moving fast enough with the times. Salesforce, for example, has three releases a year. What I like to say is we actually change our curriculum every four months, whereas sometimes you can have a qualification registered for five years and have the longevity of that. So we’ve got to address how we grow those skills.

But very importantly, to an earlier point, we have to come together to solve for the practice and the practical. So we’ve almost got to put as much energy that we’ve put into building programmes from a theoretical point of view into building how we build that work-application learning or that work-integrated learning. And that means we all have to have a different mindset and we’ve all got to get our hands dirty.

We are not going to be able to have digital skills as our biggest industry. In fact, it’s the same across the continent if we don’t do [things differently].

So I’m glad you raised a point around the practical experience, and we’ve got to completely have a rethink on how we facilitate the ability of all ages, because we’ve seen statistics from the World Economic Forum, we’ve seen how many jobs are going to be implicated. So when we look at this talent pool, yes, there’s a focus on net new talent, but the existing experienced hires, where you’ve got music teachers becoming architects in IT, or you’ve got people who are changing their roles completely – who are already in a corporate world and wanting to go into some kind of digital space – the opportunities for those jobs are there. And there, most importantly, as I say, is we’ve got to have a rethink of how we’ve been doing [things]. What we’ve done in the past is no longer going to work for the future.

SIMON BROWN: That’s a great point, and I particularly the point around the changing environment. We think of artificial intelligence and everyone’s becoming a prompt engineer. We don’t know what those jobs are going to be in five or 10 years coming out of AI.

You also made the point that research from Salesforce [shows that] 60% of full-time desk workers don’t have the skills to use generative AI technology yet, and this is going to be, one way or another, a significant part of the future digital/stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] workforce.

URSULA FEAR: That’s one of the things that we’ve got to solve for, certainly from my perspective or from my role, where I’m here to grow local skills. And [as] one of the challenges I’ll just use a practical example around a developer and, to your point, around the impact of artificial intelligence.

To start off, Salesforce is what we call ‘low code’ or ‘no code’. What we have seen in the role of a developer [is] the improvement of productivity. In other words, not too much time is spent coding. We’ve seen a savings in the cost of a developer when obviously the AI and all of those amazing things start to unfold. So we’ve seen productivity savings and we are starting to see that impact on the bottom line.

So when I make the comment of our starting to think about how we build the skills differently – that’s also when we are building a developer today and we are building a full-stack developer – what we need to be considerate of is how quickly things are changing. So when we are working and building the skill, have we got one foot in the new world of work that is informing us of the dramatic, quick-changing momentum that is happening in the world of work and in what we call fit-for-purpose skills? And when we are building that supply, are we on the baton with regard to what the workplaces are needing?

SIMON BROWN: I take your point. I mean, ChatGPT4.0 is probably saving me four hours a week in terms of some of the grunt work I need to do.

Ursula Fear, Salesforce senior talent programme manager, I appreciate the time.

Roy Walsh

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