When Phakitso Mohale recounts her trajectory in life to this moment, she speaks with pride and a little astonishment.
Mohale, 28, grew up poor in Soweto, the township in South Africa that was a renowned center of resistance to apartheid. She had to work to earn tuition before going to college. “When I look at where I started, I was a waitress, then I was a cashier. I was cooking chicken. Then I was a cleaner. It was a journey.”
Now she’s working as an app developer, using next-generation AI among other tools at a tech company. “It’s amazing, it’s eye-opening,” she says. “I have been exposed to front-end technologies that I never knew about. Now, I’m so confident that I can create a server from scratch – like for an application. I can actually do that, and I’m really happy.”
In 2021, while studying at the University of South Africa, she heard about a nonprofit organization called Youth Employment Service, or YES, where young South Africans can get a salaried, one-year apprenticeship in a corporate job. It comes with intensive training.
She applied, was accepted and spent a year working and learning at Microsoft, where she was introduced to AI, Microsoft Power Apps and the basics of several types of programming.
She is among the about 125,000 participants in the YES program who have received work experience and training since 2019. More than 34,000 others are currently employed at about 900 of the 1,500 businesses and corporations in the program. (Not all participate every year.)
Microsoft has been a key player in YES, providing tech training to all the young people participating, as well as enrolling more than 800 participants as apprentices thus far.
Now, in a new initiative, Microsoft and YES have developed a training platform that will provide AI skills to all the participants in the employment program. The platform includes an introductory course that paves the way for other, more advanced training in AI programming. Eventually, the hope is to have 300,000 participants in the course.
The new AI initiative is part of Microsoft’s broader efforts to address unemployment and the digital skills gap in South Africa and other African nations. The South African Statistics Department reports that in 2022 more than 63% of people younger than 24 were unemployed, and 42% of those 25 to 34 were jobless. At the same time, many South African companies are not able to find developers and programmers.
Empowering workers with AI tools
Ravi Naidoo, the CEO at YES, says the organization is a business-led response to the unemployment crisis in South Africa and to inequality in hiring. YES is funded by the companies that provide apprenticeships.
The idea is to identify talented young unemployed people from disadvantaged backgrounds and get them the skills to excel in new jobs. About 42% of the YES participants are hired immediately after their year in the program, Naidoo says, often in the company where they were placed, and many more find jobs within months after. YES reports that it placed 25,287 young people in full-time jobs in the fiscal year ended March 2022.
“We give them opportunities to get their first job in the private sector,” Naidoo says. “But with a focus on future-facing jobs and future facing sectors, because the more of them who are in the economy, the more they can start to have an impact.”
Like Phakitso Mohale, the young people who complete programs at tech companies tend to get jobs right away. Naidoo says, however, that even in some other kinds of jobs, the exposure to AI will have a carry-on effect.
“Even if a person worked in a warehouse, but they were comfortable with AI programs, that’s going to be very important – how things are stacked, unpacked and connected to the consumer,” he says. “They’re going to come back and open up other warehousing solutions elsewhere with that experience.”
Adam Craker is the CEO of IQbusiness, which was one of the first 10 South African companies to join YES in 2019. He is an enthusiastic champion of the program. IQBusiness is a management consulting service for the banking, financial services, health insurance and telecommunications industries. More than 200 of the about 1,100 employees of IQBusiness are former YES participants.
“The one-year program is a very structured immersion into consulting, training, technology training, exposure to clients and project evaluation,” Craker says, adding that more than 95% of IQbusiness apprentices, through its YES-aligned intern program, end up with jobs in the company. It is “a very important part of our growth in terms of talent coming into the company.”
IQbusiness helped develop the YES program, and data and data analysis are key to its success, Craker says. “Having a feedback mechanism is really important,” he says. “We don’t want to be just standing still, we want to improve the program every year.”
Every YES participant receives a smartphone with a dedicated app that provides the trainings they are required to complete during the first six months of the apprenticeship. It also has tools for giving feedback on how satisfied the apprentice is with his or her placement.
Preparing for success in many ways
The trainings go beyond Microsoft’s tech offerings.
“There was also etiquette training,” recalls Kgomotso Sekhu, 29, with a laugh. She was in the first program in 2019. “We were even taught how to use a fork and knife in a restaurant, how to place your glass and your plate. I still remember it every time I go to a restaurant.”
Sekhu grew up in a village in Hammanskraal, a region north of Pretoria. She says she is the first member of her family to graduate from college; she has a degree in mathematics from the University of Pretoria. She spent her apprenticeship at Nedbank, one of South Africa’s largest. Now she is a data analyst in the bank’s private wealth division.
Malcolm MacDonald is the chief information officer at YES, in charge of tech strategy and how the data gathered from the YES app and training modules is used. He says the training is key to the success of the program “because we want to produce people at the end of this program who are imminently hirable.”
He says learning the basics of AI is a key part of that.
“We want every alumni of this program to be adding value where they are by being more efficient through AI,” he says.
One of the employees working for MacDonald at YES is Noko Manamela, 29, from Polokwane in the north of South Africa. Even after earning a degree in mathematical sciences, he spent four years unemployed. He says it was very deflating sometimes.
“Every year, there was a cycle, one month whereby I would be struck about how flat this thing is,” he says. “There’s nothing you can do. Apply for jobs to the point where you’re losing hope.” He kept completing online courses, and eventually heard about YES. He won a spot in the program in April of 2022 and was placed in YES’s internal technology team.
On this day, he was writing code in Python, which had taught himself to do, to use machine learning and AI to automate the process of turning data from an MySQL database into easily readable bar charts in PowerPoint. The monthly feedback from thousands of apprentices is used to analyze the efficiency of each company’s program.
‘A pipeline for talent’
Normally each report would take about two hours to process manually. With Manamela’s program in place, it will take less than two minutes, leaving time for more important tasks.
While placing young people in jobs is important, the organization also wants them to be “catalysts” for greater change, says Naidoo of YES.
“This is like a pipeline for talent to come in, to build the next generation of managers and in the country,” he says. “And the person is coming from a very disadvantaged background. So there’s a double benefit. You’re getting the person into employment, but the person also brings a perspective about building something for the broader community.”
Phakitso Mohale is thinking along those lines; she says wants to help the people in Soweto. She still lives at home there with her parents. Her sister is another graduate of the YES program with a job, but her oldest sister and two brothers are unemployed.
She said the training at Microsoft prepared her for her current role. “There was a module that introduced us to artificial intelligence, to learn what it is and how it works, and because of that background it made me fit so well into the team.”
That team is developing an app that would help people understand the benefits of different kinds of insurance. “Because we found that average citizens, they just feel overwhelmed when they come across insurance jargon like beneficiaries, coverage premiums, they don’t understand those words,” she says. “We use the AI just to simplify the terms, and also to make it more personalized to give them recommendations based on their financial needs.”
She’d like to add “business owner” to her resume as well. During her year with Microsoft, she went through some training about entrepreneurship.
“That is something that I’m really, really pursuing personally, because I want to own an internet café,” she says, “because where I stay we have to walk about four kilometers to the nearest one. And sometimes I really want to send an email ASAP. So if I were to open one close by, I think it will help a lot of people in my area.”
Top photo: Phakitso Mohale works as an app developer at a startup in Soweto, South Africa. Photo by Chris Welsch for Microsoft.