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African Petrochemicals is South Africa’s leading quarterly print and digital trade magazine for the past 15 years. Featuring all the latest petrochemical industry news, special reports, technological advances and much more.

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Reimagining skills development

Across the world, businesses are using digital technologies like IoT and AR to improve knowledge and skill levels of their employees. In this article, Barry Elliott, Managing Director of Rockwell Automation Sub-Saharan Africa, considers the wider potential application for skilling people beyond the immediate environments of organisations…

Digital technology is having an immense impact in the operating, maintenance and training environments of industrial companies around the world, allowing them to more adequately acquaint and prepare workers to real-life job situations via an increased capacity to deliver more experiential learning environments.

Rockwell Automation is among the industrial automation companies developing augmented reality (AR) technologies simulating machine and plant environments. And with our recent announcement of a $1 billion equity stake in PTC enabling the integration of AR into platforms such as FactoryTalk Analytics and MES software, we’re bringing even more analytical and diagnostic intelligence into manufacturing and plant management applications. As technology allows us to emulate the day-to-day experiences of a given job’s requirements with greater richness and accuracy, we’re able to improve the safety, knowledge and efficiency of our workforce in the environments we operate in.

Yet digital technologies such as PTC’s are also positively impacting environments far beyond the more specialist context of industrial automation: the company’s ThingWorx® IoT and Vuforia® AR platforms are used by KTM and Caterpillar to improve knowledge and skills transfer to less experienced mechanics and introduce greater consistency and centralisation in the service methodology of their vehicles and equipment. Delivering real-time visual instructions for service procedures superimposed on the physical product via PTC software is helping these technicians quickly and safely locate and access a mechanical fault and perform complete diagnostic evaluations to deliver the highest chances of successful repair processes. In retail, Walmart is using AR to train employees in customer service and shop logistics. Trades like welding are being taught through AR. From hospitality and finance to construction sites and healthcare, digital technologies are transforming our capacity to provide rapid knowledge transfer from the experienced to the novice.

The ability of technology to provide an experiential learning platform beyond theoretical constructs is a critical – but not the sole – reason for its growth as a tool in the training environment. It’s also a technical medium we’re familiar with, find easy to use and grasp intuitively.

If technology is not only a more effective, but more accessible, conduit for skills development, then why don’t we mobilise it for the urgent national project of building the skills base of our youth?

You see, this digital competence isn’t just accessible to an elite segment of society; it’s the glue that binds a collective of digital natives, transcending specific classes, backgrounds and cultures. And as I’ve previously suggested, millennials in Africa use digital technology just as intuitively as anyone else in the world.

More than at any other point in our industrial history, therefore, we have the educational infrastructure to realign what is taught in our education systems to the skills required in the modern marketplace.

Because it’s not just a shortage of jobs that’s fuelling the unemployment of six million young people in South Africa. In many areas, our workforce is simply inadequately skilled. So while recent government initiatives are incentivising private business to employ young people – with the most recent YES (Youth Employment Service) campaign aiming to make over one million employment positions available to young workers – we need to ensure that our youths are sufficiently skilled to prosper in the work place. Any solution to getting our youth moving needs to more directly address the underlying skills deficit as well.

With a constantly expanding portfolio of training material used in the workplace on an accessible medium, is there not the potential to scale these applications down into broader learning environments – perhaps even schools – putting more relevant skills into the reach of our nation’s learners? Could the focus of our educational CSI be to tailor derivatives of suitable training material to an educational class experience? Let’s bring welding, assembly, customer service, machine and plant operating and engineering into formal learning streams using the educational technologies that already exist in the corporate world!

Perhaps the classroom required for this type of technical learning looks slightly different to the model that’s been in service, largely unchanged, for over a century. Perhaps these ‘classrooms’ become more decentralised, with companies opening their training facilities, boardrooms, AV equipment and so on to scheduled technical classes?

However if the precise logistics of deploying this new approach to education are to materialise, it will need the support and encouragement of government to enable, formalise and regulate educational streams based around skills acquisition to be successful. With the public and private sector dedicated to mobilising the power of educational technology to improve the possibilities for learning in the classroom, we can begin to build a system where the completion of a schooling stream produces people who are more prepared for the demands of the formal economy, and can be far more quickly and gainfully employed as such.

This is how we can begin to ensure our youth becomes a dividend, not a burden.

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