Bridging the 21st Century Talent Gap

Today’s developed nations attained their economic status by riding the wave of industrialization that began with the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century where workers moved from farms to factories. According to conventional wisdom, the path for today’s developing nations to grow their economies and increase per-capita-income is to follow a similar pattern of industrialization. That’s why most economic development programs for developing countries involve large capital projects and luring large multinational corporations to build factories on their soil. In fact, countries like China, South Korea, and Brazil made significant economic gains in the second half of the 20th century by embracing industrialization.

However, in the 21st century, we are witnessing the shrinking of manufacturing jobs across the globe. Between 2000 and 2010, the US lost 5.6M manufacturing jobs and according to the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State, 85% of those jobs losses are due to technological change. Simply put, factories are becoming more productive while employing fewer people, and this trend will only continue to accelerate.

While job losses are a sobering problem for developed nations, they present an existential crisis for developing countries that must now reimagine their brighter futures. The appeal of cheap unskilled labor will continue to diminish going forward. 21st century jobs require 21st century skills. According to Dr. Laurence Shatkin, the best jobs will focus on high tech, health care, and business efficiency. Jobs like engineers, scientists, nurses, and analysts typically require several years of tertiary education.

However, not enough people in developing countries are getting a tertiary education. In Africa, there is a significant talent gap for 21st century jobs. For example, in South Africa, which has a relatively well-developed economy compared to other African countries, only 7% of 25- to 64-year olds have completed a tertiary education compared to 50% in the US (OECD data). Big chasms in the education of a country’s workforce do not bode well for the ability to compete in the 21st century.

To further compound this problem, the path to a university degree is not realistic for most children growing up in developing nations today. Extreme poverty leaves many young adults unprepared for a post-secondary education and severely lacking the resources to fund the endeavor.

But there is good news! The rise of coding boot camps is providing faster and more affordable ways of preparing young adults for 21st century jobs. Firms like General Assembly, App Academy and Dev Bootcamp offer training in software development, product management and user experience design in as little as 12 weeks. According to job-placement firm Triplebyte, candidates who went through coding boot camps had the necessary skills for most junior level programming jobs. Andela is leveraging the boot camp model to train developers in Lagos and Nairobi, paying students to learn and providing them jobs afterwards.

Furthermore, sites like Udemy, Codecademy and Coursera offer a wide range of online training at little to no cost. Motivated students with access to a computer and the Internet can now learn 21st century skills and in many cases attain certification on completion.

In the same way the advent of the cell phone allowed developing countries to leapfrog land line technologies, coding boot camps and online courses can provide a much needed opportunity to leapfrog traditional tertiary education.  This new approach to educating the populace does not come a moment too soon and provides hope for developing the talent required for a brighter future.