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Cybersecurity skills gap offers SA big 4IR opportunity

By SANDRO BUCCHIANERI, Chief Security Officer of Absa Group.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is an opportunity for public and private businesses as well as government to influence the development of a talent pipeline to address our current and future needs. In seizing this opportunity, we have the chance to contribute to tackling the global cybersecurity skills shortage while addressing the unemployment of our youth and, in so doing, making an impact on people and the societies in which we live.

Youth aged 15-24 are the most vulnerable in the South African labour market. Statistics SA reported that the unemployment rate among this age group was 55% in the first quarter of 2019, while Cyber Ventures estimates that the global shortfall of cybersecurity jobs will rise to 3.5 million by 2021. It is a challenge partially rooted in the socio-economic environment, the growing void between youthskills, employer needs and because the South African education system is failing to train the next generation for the digital economy.  

South African youth from marginalised backgrounds are hungry for opportunities to develop skills that will result in employment. They are often unable to access tertiary education due to financial circumstances and without education their future is bleak and the cycle of poverty continues. Given the enormous need for skilled cybersecurity professionals locally and globally, we saw the opportunityto truly make a difference.

Addressing the global shortage of cybersecurity professionals is an urgent challenge. The estimated shortfall of 3.5 million jobs worldwide provides a startling statistic and a unique opportunity to make a difference. This gap must be filled to support the projected growth of the world’s cybersecurity sector over the next couple of years, but the talent pool is simply not keeping pace. In South Africa, the problem is compounded, as those who are trained in cybersecurity do not stay, as they are headhunted by global counterparts for premium packages.

Poverty and unemployment are at an all-time high. Limited access to formal education exacerbates the situation, and currently there does not seem to be a suitable solution in place to overcome this crisis. The 4IR is an exciting time for everyone, particularly the cybersecurity sector, as we are in desperate need of talent that is equipped to keep up with the industry.

To address its skills shortage, Absa has collaborated with the Maharishi Institute (MI) to set up the Absa Cybersecurity Academy. The programme is an externally focused, corporate social responsibility initiative aimed at empowering marginalised South African youth, who would otherwise not have had access to a tertiary education. The learners who participate become certified cybersecurity analysts.

The secret to the success of this programme is that we do not only focus on developing technical skills, we focus on creating a whole being through consciousness-based education. All the students who enrol in the Absa Cybersecurity Academy come from marginalised communities, 36% suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while 70% are females who have been abused in one way or another.

To make a success of the programme, we knew we had to develop each student holistically by balancing the technical, social and emotional skills required to ensure that they are not simply technically competent, but adequately prepared to succeed in the world of work.

The MI was created in 2007 with the ambition of making tertiary education accessible to South Africa’s youth by providing non-educational support to students wanting to access education through accredited educational partners. In so doing, it showcases South Africa as a leading innovator in education provision. The institute supports student learning that focuses on the student, rather than just books or information.

The partnership between Absa and the MI offers students accredited cybersecurity training, bridging courses and whole person development, including transcendental meditation and life and work-readyskills to make them “university ready”. It also includes financial support, including bursaries and work experience at MI’s call centres. Students receive a nutritious lunch daily as well as support through placement programmes, including the use of a “clothing library” for corporate interviews.

The founding principle of the academy is that everyone has the potential to be deemed “talent”. It is not necessary to have a wall hung with degrees to be a successful cybersecurity professional. Our first 24 students have just written their first internationally recognised exam, which they all passed. This is testament to not only the excellent education and training, but the holistic care for each student.

It is our job to prepare the youth for the 4IR. We need to invest in upskilling them for the future of work and to meet global cybersecurity demands. We can make South Africa and the wider African continent the hub of cybersecurity talent; we have the people, we just need to help them rewrite their futures.

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