Create National ICT Apprenticeship Programs to Enhance ICT and STEM, Without Hurting GoL’s Payroll

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By Dr. Darren Wilkins ([email protected] | 0777129092 & 0886703789)

A few days ago, US President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order establishing a council and advisory board to improve job training and reskilling for students and workers, to fill tech talent gaps and address the impact of automation on the workforce. This move was taken to ensure that America is not left behind in the field of Artificial Intelligence; a technology that seems to be shaping the future. This “Apprenticeship” approach will groom several young Americans and equip them with skills needed to compete with other nations, if not lead, in the field of Artificial Intelligence.

In Liberia, around this time (July) last year, when I served as Managing Director of the Liberia Telecommunications Corporation, I started a program with the intention of achieving similar goals. The LIBTELCO Temporary Workers Program (TWP) was intended to assimilate 30 (later became 40 plus) young men and women, assign them to skilled professionals within the corporation, so that they would garner on-the-job experience and develop ICT, STEM and business skills. This, in my opinion would enable us build a repository of skilled ICT professionals and minimize the costs incurred from bringing in skills from Ghana, India, Kenya, and other countries.

With the TWP, we were building the capacity of the youth and preparing for a digital transformation in Africa’s oldest republic. Those who did not understand my vision accused me of “bloating” our payroll. This was not entirely true. In point of fact, the compensation offered the amalgam of all those young men and women, paralleled the salary of ONE of my directors. Hence, the program had no significant impact on our payroll. And, truth be told, the kids didn’t really care about “remuneration”. All they wanted was job experience that would help them land a permanent job someday, whether in Liberia or elsewhere. I later found out that the few individuals opposing the program were simply xenophobic; something I had no panacea for. The TWP paid off and today, LIBTELCO has young men skilled in the deployment of fiber optics and wireless networks, marketing, accounting/finance, and other areas. I will not take credit for this even though it is my brainchild. Credit goes to all of those professionals at the Corporation who nurtured participants of the TWP. In this public manner, I say to them, “TAKE A BOW”, you have done well for your country.

Youth unemployment—an acute problem in Liberia—is overwhelmingly considered to have long-term negative implications, both on individuals’ quality of life and on broader socio-economic development outcomes. Youth unemployment is often due to the lack of skills. And, skills deficit in Liberia is significantly driven by an education system in which a large number of students fail to progress beyond high school. Worst of all, access to post-secondary education is sometimes based on performance in national examinations, which has not gone too well for Liberian students over the years. Hence, to build capacity in ICT and other STEM areas, and provide employment for the youth, I believe a national ICT apprenticeship program should be established. Apprenticeships provide low-cost labor to businesses since employers do not have to worry about benefits and other items attached to full-time employment.

International experience indicates that ICT apprenticeships help nations build a skilled and motivated workforce in a timely and cost-effective manner. Employers of all sizes gain access to adept ICT enthusiasts who attain bespoke skills that enable them become highly productive and ready to ‘hit the ground running’ in a relatively short period.

When properly harnessed, our young working-age population will drive Liberia’s economic and digital transformation. However, this opportunity could also escape Liberia. The majority of youth aged between 18 and 35 in Liberia today, are unemployed, have insecure jobs or are in casual employment. The challenge is multidimensional, hence, it requires an innovative and strategic approach toward finding a solution. The innovative and strategic approach of which I speak is a national ICT apprenticeship program.

Liberia is a country of tremendous wealth and enormous untapped potential. Most of our population is young. A major problem facing this small nation is youth unemployment. Hence, as I mentioned in my last article published last week, it is time for visionary leadership; a kind of leadership that entails doing things differently in anticipation of different outcomes. The Government has the responsibility to turn Liberia’s largest demographic asset into an economic dividend. And this can be done in conjunction with our many partners and donors. It is high time that the GoL applies innovative paradigms toward building the capacity of the youth and subsequently provide employment for them, so that tomorrow, a new horizon of a dynamic and prosperous Liberia will be a point of fact.

The cost of unemployment is also pervasive and severe. Long spells of youth unemployment or vulnerable employment permanently lower future productive potential and earnings, and individuals with limited income have restricted access to health and education services. Limited economic opportunities also fuel conflict and instability.

Companies and all of our partners (NGOs, MNOs, ISPs, etc) could help this government by creating more apprenticeship programs and increasing on-the-job training. This will provide the youth with more opportunities to develop the skills needed to gain steady jobs. This initiative could also serve as a campaign to raise awareness of workforce issues and the importance of STEM education. The initiative should also recognize those entities that provide apprenticeships for our youth. .

The GoL needs to devise policies that will promote life-long skills training that will be essential to closing the ever-widening skills gap caused by technological advancement. America has begun doing so, Ireland, Ghana, Kenya and many other countries are doing the same for digital transformation and economic development. Ireland announced an Apprentice program that targets 1000 participants for the next four years. This program has two levels; ICT Associate Professional Software Developer 2. ICT Associate Professional Network Engineer. These are two critical and strategic disciplines when striving to achieve digital transformation. We may not be as developed as Ireland, we can learn from them and tailor our own apprenticeship program to suit our needs. In another development, Ghana has a National Apprenticeship Program (NAP) which pairs young people who have limited education with master trainers operating small businesses for a one-year training period.

People with tech skills are in demand – not just in the ICT sector – more and more jobs across industry require various levels of proficiency in ICT. This is a trend which is anticipated to grow as increasingly institutions utilize technologies to manage their activities, market their products, communicate with their customers and increase productivity.

Emerging Internet of Things (IoT) technologies are creating daily, new industrial sectors, way beyond the prospects of driverless cars, delivery by drones etc., resulting in the creation of new roles, skill sets and career paths across all sectors of the economy, which are expected to grow exponentially in the coming years. ICT skills are in demand globally, and with the phenomenal growth in ICTs, all jurisdictions are competing for ICT talent.

The GoL has about 102 Ministries, Agencies and Commissions (MACs). I stand corrected of course. All of these MACs have many different digital and technical needs and roles. These roles support the core functions of each MAC and are always changing. Some of these areas include but not limited to: Web development, networking, cyber security, computer programming, interactive media, software engineering, Database development and management, systems analysis and design, infrastructure support, help desk, applications development, to name a few.

I hope that this article is read by policymakers in Liberia and be used to assist them in formulating sound policies to address youth unemployment. That’s all for today!!!

Until next week,

Carpe diem!

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