How basic digital literacy can give rural youth a fighting chance in the 21st-century workplace

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Some principals and school governing bodies in Limpopo – which are also involved in the appointment of teachers – have expressed concerns about this policy as well. Photo: PeopleImages/Getty
Some principals and school governing bodies in Limpopo – which are also involved in the appointment of teachers – have expressed concerns about this policy as well. Photo: PeopleImages/Getty

BUSINESS


Young people in our rural areas get a raw deal. They are eager to work, but often leave school without even the most basic digital skills. Many can’t even send an email, let alone create a professional-looking CV or complete an online university application form.

I’ve been there myself, at home in rural Mpumalanga, and I’ve experienced that disillusionment. You are automatically at a disadvantage before you’ve even set foot in the working world.

Luckily, I had the opportunity to attend a bridging programme to sharpen my computer skills. It changed my life. Today, I have a teaching degree and a nursing qualification, and I’m in a management position at a non-profit organisation, Good Work Foundation (GWF), where I was given my first break.

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After matric, I couldn’t afford to study further at university, those were the days before free tertiary education. I managed to get a learnership for auxiliary nursing through government, but after that ended, I was out in the cold with no job and no prospects.

But I get bored easily, and I got frustrated. I love overcoming hurdles, asking “what’s next?” and finding new challenges that keep me awake at night, trying to solve them. I’ve been fortunate enough to be blessed with many of those since then!

After our family heard about the GWF through a member of our church congregation, I enrolled in the foundation’s computer skills course (the precursor to its Bridging Year Academy) in 2014. Things snowballed from there, and I volunteered to facilitate schoolchildren in the GWF’s Open Learning Academy, before formally joining as an employee in 2016.

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In the years since, I’ve climbed the ranks from facilitator to programme coordinator to campus manager at the foundation’s Huntington Digital Learning Campus – all in deep rural Mpumalanga. Currently, I’m the manager of the Bridging Year Academy, which equips young people with digital, English and basic work-readiness skills.

We manage five digital learning campuses serving rural communities on the western border of the Kruger National Park as well as a campus in a small village in the Free State.

Our Bridging Year Academy helps school-leavers navigate the tricky passage into the world of work or tertiary education with confidence and purpose. We’re able to sponsor pupils and students thanks to corporate and individual support, and the more we receive, the more students can access what we call “wonder-filled learning” at the GWF.

The need for such an offering is clear.

Like me a decade ago, countless young people in rural Mpumalanga are sitting at home after completing their matric. This is not because they are lazy, but because they are simply too demoralised to venture out without the basics of computer literacy and other essential life skills.

They desperately need a bridge to carry them into the world of work, entrepreneurship or further studies. Helping them find this bridge, blossom and discover their purpose is what gives me oxygen and keeps me motivated.

I’ve learnt new and exciting things in each of the roles I’ve been in, and have developed a love of learning, moving forward and seeing what we can do better. I always put myself in the shoes of the students, whether pupils or young adults, and think about what I would love to learn if I were them.

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Working with young people sets my heart on fire. It’s so wonderful to see your impact on people’s lives while watching them grow as individuals. Often, former students will come up to me in the street and greet me, and I’m proud to see how far they have come, because I’ve been on that journey myself. Like many of them, I was inspired to study further and earned my Bachelor of Education degree part-time through Unisa while working at the GWF.

Just the other day, a graduate from the foundation described how he now had the confidence to walk into a university and use a computer to do research and assignments. His joy and sense of fulfilment was contagious. Another former student, who is studying social work at the University of Limpopo, visited and told us how, from initially not knowing anything about computers, she now helps fellow students who are struggling to master the complexities of the digital world! This knowledge puts her a step ahead of her peers – because, let’s face it, student life has enough stresses as it is.

We are all proof that it is possible to buck the trend and avoid being a statistic among the 65% of South Africa’s young people who are unemployed. We can help close the gap by supporting young adults to cross the digital divide – making the world of work and academia less intimidating.

If we can simply give young people the confidence to communicate effectively in English, use a computer, write application letters and a CV, and confidently do a presentation, that’s already a few less things for them to worry about.

Businesses want interns or employees who are work-ready and can plunge right in, universities are not able to make allowances for computer-illiterate students.

I’m excited to be part of a broader vision to re-imagine education for a 21st-century world driven by the fourth industrial revolution – simply by giving young people in rural areas a fighting chance to compete in the workplace.

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We also offer them the chance to do hospitality, conservation or information technology training, once they’ve mastered the basics, or even train to become facilitators, just like I did.

Both practically and psychologically, it’s very important for those of us living in rural communities to not feel inferior but be empowered to take that extra step forward. Having the weapons in our armoury – such as digital literacy – to bridge the gap so we can study and find work gives us dignity.

I am rewarded and inspired every day by these young people who are determined not to become a statistic. But I would love it if more people started thinking of our rural-educated workers as a valuable resource, appreciated for our strong work ethic and integrity.

We don’t want charity – all we want is a fighting chance at earning a decent living and thriving in a job we love, like everyone else.

. Mandlazi is the Good Work Foundation’s Bridging Year Academy manager


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