South Africa outsources almost 30,000 digital and ICT jobs to other countries. This translates into an estimated loss of export revenue in the region of R8.5 billion a year. If we could reshore this work, we have the potential to create significant job opportunities South Africa so desperately needs when you consider that at least three million jobs have been lost this year.

Job creation at scale is best achieved in growth sectors. The digital economy continues to grow despite the current global recession, and we need to find ways to harness the opportunities this presents.

The good news is that according to a survey released this week by Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator which details what it will take to support growth of the South African digital economy, more than half of the respondents (55%), indicated that they service other international markets from South Africa. The key to creating more of these opportunities is in establishing South Africa’s global competitiveness in digital services, including call centre work, coding, other ICT services, finance, accounting and legal support. Reshoring and bringing this digital work back to South Africa not only presents opportunities for unemployed youth but offers the added potential of growing South Africa’s share of global and digitally traded services.

The local business process outsourcing, also known as global business, sector is one that provides services to international markets, ranging from entry-level customer care to highly complex legal and financial services. The industry employs over 260,000 people domestically, with 65,000 of these serving foreign markets. In the second quarter of this year, when the world was shedding jobs, the industry created over 2,500 new jobs, 88% of which were filled by young people aged 18 – 35.

It’s these kinds of numbers that prompted Gauteng Premier David Makhuru to say that the sector is now a vivid example of a social compact that is moving out of a low growth trajectory to inclusive growth and employment.

He was speaking that the 3rd Gauteng Global Business Services and Digital Economy Sector Action Lab last week. These Action Labs are a result of the partnership formed back in 2016 between the Gauteng provincial government and the global business sector. The key objective of the partnership is to focus on practical tasks between industry and government that can drive growth for the sector in the province. The Action Labs are a social compact between more than 50 active members, including companies, government and social partners. Its progress is monitored and reviewed by the Premier himself.

Consistent investment and concerted effort by members of the provincial Action Lab since 2016 has resulted in annualised new compounded job growth of 31%. The province now accounts for 16% of the country’s international work for the sector and is responsible for the majority of the local industry’s work.

We can create more jobs still. Harambee’s research shows that if exported work can be reshored, an estimated 66,000 jobs could be created, two-thirds of which are entry-level roles. Of course, not all of these opportunities fall within the global business sector, and certainly not all in Gauteng. Still, the recent sitting of the Action Lab has resulted in several commitments to prepare the province for more and better job opportunities.

Further industry mobilisation is essential and will be achieved through a multi-strategy,  coordinated effort. The Gauteng partnership will be expanded to include provincial partners Gauteng Department of Economic Development and Gauteng Growth and Development Agency, the Cities of Johannesburg and Tshwane, the DTIC and BPESA, the industry body for Global Business Services.

There’s also a vision to take the work closer to the communities that do it, through a township enablement programme. This will require real coordination around fibre deployment, a commitment of jobs by business and leveraging existing government assets and investments, including infrastructure like the Development Bank of South Africa’s newly-built DLAB hubs in Soweto.

To ensure that the province has the right people with the right skills to fulfil these new digital opportunities, a provincial skills strategy will be developed, including a sector-specific academy of specialisation.

It’s only through public-private partnerships like this that solutions to our jobs crisis can be found. There is a real opportunity for government and industry stakeholders to work together to invest in the global business services skills ecosystem. Gauteng is a good case study, but it is beholden on the whole country to develop pathways for excluded youth to find a way into the digital economy.