Published in Sep-Oct 2021
Despite what we, the older generation, may like to believe, having basic IT/digital skills has been necessary in the workplace for decades. It started with the need for limited professionals, such as IT specialists and employees who could safely eject a floppy disk (yes, some of us are that old) and has evolved into a situation where companies must ensure that the majority, if not all, of their staff are digitally literate if they are to help their organisation transition and operate in an e-commerce environment.
Technology has become an integral and inescapable part of our lives and as our dependence on digital communications increases, our workforce must keep up with evolving skill demands. The mass shift to online operations due to the pandemic has further accelerated the need for digitally literate workers. Although ‘the youth of Pakistan’ is an oft repeated term and we stand amongst the top 10 labour forces in the world, our people unfortunately lack the requisite skill sets. The future is and remains digital (barring any breakthrough) and we need to bridge the skill gap between our people, build an inclusive labour market and meet the demands of the technology and automation markets.
What Are Digital Skills?
Cornell University defines digital literacy as “the ability to find, evaluate, utilise, share and create content using information technologies and the internet.” By this definition, anything from the ability to find out your high score on Minesweeper to coding a website counts as a digital skill. Being digitally capable enables us to create and share content, communicate effectively, collaborate efficiently and solve problems in life, at work and in the community. They can broadly be divided into two areas: entry-level and advanced. Entry-level means basic functional skills required to make basic use of digital devices and online applications, such as email, cloud-based communication tools such as Microsoft Teams, using productivity software like Microsoft Office, etc. and are widely considered as critical components of a new set of literacy skills in the digital era. Then we have the advanced spectrum of digital skills that allow users to make use of digital technologies in empowering and transformative ways, such as professions in ICT. Major digital transformations, such as AI, machine learning, big data analytics, change skills requirements, all impact capacity building and skills development in the 21st century digital economy.
Skills for a Digital Economy
To realise opportunities today, we need to understand how jobs and their required skill sets are changing. Digital skills have moved from ‘optional’ to ‘critical’ and must be backed by ‘soft skills’, such as the ability to communicate effectively. Knowing how to answer your emails, access files on Google Drive, run a digital marketing campaign are all digital skills that are increasingly sought after in today’s job market. There is no hard and fast rule; however, about which digital skills you may or may not need, digital literacy is a language; the more digital skills you have, the better you can speak it and these skills come with their own set of sub-skills. These skills greatly improve prospects for good employment and higher earning potential; needless to say, people with the right skills also drive organisational growth and competitiveness. Employers realise this, so they are prioritising candidates who can showcase their digital literacy. By developing better digital skills, you can future-proof your career and explore a wide range of professional opportunities.
Is Pakistan Ready?
Unfortunately, Pakistan is lagging in digital literacy, especially at a core level in our educational institutions. Digital skills or even theoretical coursework on both entry level and advanced skills are limited to the basics, while we also have fewer higher education institutions that specialise in developing such skill sets similar, for example, to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) systems, which act as centres of excellence for training, research and development in science, engineering and technology in India. Pakistan faces multiple challenges, including low enrolment rates, high dropout rates from the education system, and infrastructural challenges due to low internet penetration – all of which pose immediate threats. Digital competencies, apart from the most basic, are challenging to develop without basic literacy and infrastructure. According to some reports, only 44% of government high schools and 38% of private high schools have computer labs in rural areas, while the number is 85% and 80% for public and private high schools in urban areas. Even though computer science is taught, students are unable to gain practical knowledge without the required infrastructure. Therefore, we need to focus on a specialised system of technical and vocational education and training institutes along the lines of IIT along with building the right infrastructure in schools. Also important are global linkages that help build the educational level in line with changing practices and demands worldwide. In a nutshell, we need to move and move fast. The Government of Pakistan is looking to drive structural growth and has launched policy-based initiatives, with new resolutions to set up improved digital infrastructure, digital skills, and widespread connectivity under the Digital Pakistan vision.
Major technology breakthroughs in the coming years will impact the labour markets as well as other aspects of life such as education, health and agriculture. From a skills development perspective, the implications of technological change are profound, both for the re- and up-skilling of adults and for the education of young people and children. In this context, developing capacities for anticipating the changing needs for digital skills for work and life is crucial for Pakistan.
Hasan Saeed Akbar is Head of Corporate Communications, JS Bank. firstname.lastname@example.org