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In speaking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technophobes might consider it a coup d’etat of robots as seen in movies.

The world’s first ATM was launched on June 27 in 1967 at the Barclays Bank in Enfield, England.

At the time, it permitted only £10 withdrawals. In the past 56 years, the banking industry has evolved, from the card-imprint machine to payment terminals, writing cheques to EFTs, and online shopping. When I was at school learning how to write cheques, I could never envision that I would make payments on a computer or mobile phone.

“Skilling teachers, trainers and youth for a transformative future” was this year’s theme on World Youth Skills Day on June 15. Our youth must learn the skills needed in the digital age.

New employment opportunities will be created as a result of 4IR, not the reverse as so often feared.

“Implement and intensify skills training of young people in the areas of the 4IR such as: reverse engineering of smart cars, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicles, nanotechnology, biotechnology, big data, the internet of things, quantum computing, virtual network of choice, virtual broadcasting services, visual media and networks, etc, as required by industry” as mentioned in the National Youth Policy 2030 regarding adapting to the 4IR. Youth should embrace the kaleidoscope of opportunities presented to them and not be fearful.

As glamorous as it might sound in practice, however, it is difficult when they live in poverty-stricken communities.

Not all schools are fitted with computer labs. Walking to an available library could be a matter of life or death, given the need to move through gang territories or having to walk more than 10 km to the nearest one.

During the pandemic, it was evident that students in poor communities could not access work online, many parents had to decide between a loaf of bread and 1GB of data.

As a child I attended a primary and high school with computer labs. It influenced my interest in computers. At the time, I did not realise that it was a luxury not accessible to many learners.

In an era when 4IR is colloquial to our generation, access to technology is not an opulence, but a basic necessity.

For people sleeping rough on the streets, wanting to apply for work, and break the cycle of homelessness this is almost impossible. Most job applications need to be done online.

Even if they want to work at a local supermarket they will need to have a typed CV.

At U-turn Homeless Ministries, an NGO that empowers people to overcome homelessness through their phased programmes, people who have experienced homelessness are being ushered into the world of technology. Champions, as their clients on the Phase 3 Work- Readiness programme are named, are taught basic computer skills during their personal development day.

For some, it is the first time that they have worked on a computer.

One of U-turn’s social enterprises, Connect Solutions, is teaching some of the Champions coding.

For the past four months, they have grown from the basics of computer skills to learning HTML, CSS and Javascript. With the skills they are acquiring they are rebuilding their lives one code at a time.

As technology evolves, new programming languages are created. Sometimes people feel that computers think for themselves and will overpower humanity, yet behind every great invention, there is an extraordinary person.

“We’ve tended to forget that no computer will ever ask a new question”, says Grace Hopper, who created Cobol, a computer programming language more than 60 years ago.

Reuters in 2017 reported that 43% of banking systems are still built on Cobol, 80% of in-person transactions, and 95% of ATMs use it.

Teaching the youth skills for the 4IR regardless of their socio-economic background could catapult them into becoming world-renowned software engineers. – Cathy Achilles, U-turn Homeless Ministries

Originally published in the Cape Times on 14 July 2023

Photo: Pexels/Sora Shimazaki