OPINION | Investment in STEM subjects is an investment in the future of the economy

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"Building a growing, dynamic and innovative South African economy that caters to today's needs and those of the future requires that the government and all relevant stakeholders take STEM subjects seriously". (Getty Images)
"Building a growing, dynamic and innovative South African economy that caters to today's needs and those of the future requires that the government and all relevant stakeholders take STEM subjects seriously". (Getty Images)

Below, Melikhaya Sihawu, head of Esri South Africa College, shares his take on the need for the education sector, government and industry to work in unison to address the skills gap. 

Early last month, while addressing the National Teaching Awards, President Cyril Ramaphosa decried the fact that "Some [...] young work-seekers are not well educated and do not possess sufficient skills and previous work experience demanded by employers in the labour market." 

This statement is probably best illustrated by the fact that young people aged between 25 to 34 years old, who should be economically active and who should make up the bulk of the workforce, are unemployed at a rate of 42.9%.

With each passing day and the advancement of technology, they become more and more unemployable.

Also read: Blended learning is a viable option for South Africa, but 'appetite for corruption is rife'

'Not nearly enough is being done'

It is my considered view that not nearly enough is being done to ensure that young people are being guided towards taking up the right subjects and skills to lift themselves, their communities and the country out of economic ruin.

Further to this, the education sector, government and industry are not working in unison to address the skills gap, which widens with the release of every statistical report on the state of the economy and education. Perhaps a challenge is that we are not doing enough to link the relationship between the economy and education.

It has been a long time since I was in school, but the focus appears to be on the number of students completing their matric and progressing to tertiary education, rather than the quality of the pass, especially in critical subjects in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM subjects. 

As long as we neglect fostering an interest in these subjects and fail to invest in the tools to improve the quality of teaching and learning in these subjects, President Ramaphosa will make the same speech at each annual National Teaching Awards ceremony.

'Music to the ears'

This is not to say that the government and interested stakeholders are sitting on their hands, but certainly, if it is a matter that sits on the president's desk, it is a matter that requires urgency, innovation and, of course, political will. 

That said, I am cautiously optimistic that learners from my home province, the Eastern Cape, now have access to a STEM facility, the first of its kind in the country, in the form of the Albertina Nontsikelelo Sisulu Science Centre. We need more of these facilities built across the country.

On the occasion of its opening, the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Blade Nzimande, stated that the science centre "will support the teaching of maths, science and technology in the local schools, as well as act as a teacher development centre to better equip maths and science educators."

This is music to the ears of those of us in geospatial technology, more specifically geographic information system (GIS), which requires those wanting to enter the field to be highly competent in mathematics, geography, science and technology. 

Also see: 'The future of our children lies in the hands of our teachers': Why the role of teachers is 'pivotal'

'A field of today and tomorrow'

GIS is not an often spoken about field of study, nor do we fully understand it, yet it has everyday applications for us all. 

I was first exposed to GIS as a university student while studying Environmental Studies at the Walter Sisulu University, also in the Eastern Cape, but only delved into it intimately at a postgraduate level, which opened a world of opportunities for me. My wish is that more youth are exposed to this world, and that can only happen when more science centres are established, and funding is put behind educational and employment opportunities.

GIS is a field of today and tomorrow - two moments in time for which we should be preparing. It is a discipline that can be applied to many different fields, from environmental management to retail to transport to location intelligence. Making everyday decisions, such as which route to get to work, is actually GIS in its simplest form.

Then there's managing a national budget as a government and needing to know exactly how and where that budget gets spent. There's also mapping outbreaks of disease and using GIS to organise logistics and to mitigate risk.

Building a growing, dynamic and innovative South African economy that caters to today's needs and those of the future requires that the government and all relevant stakeholders take STEM subjects seriously and invest in programmes and facilities that nurture their associated skills and expertise.


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