We asked business leaders what learners must study – One answer stood out

We are now a few weeks into the 2024 academic year for tertiary learners in South Africa. The next few years will be crucial for many, as pursuing the right qualification can set them up for life after studying.

As such, the choice of what to study is not taken lightly, especially given the cost of tertiary education in SA, not to mention the fact that employment trends often impact what the best subject is to future proof your career.

Over the past decade, data has dictated where learners decide to study – whether that be as a data scientist or analyst.

Is that still the case in 2024? We asked a dozen business leaders at some of South Africa’s top companies for their thoughts on the matter, aiming to discover which types of qualification are currently prized in the field, as well as where the most attention should be paid in terms of industry trends.

The gamut of business leaders ran wide, with Hypertext receiving valuable insight and feedback from companies in the telecommunications, fintech, cybersecurity, energy, insurtech, and ecommerce spaces.

Interestingly, however, or perhaps unsurprisingly, one subject in particular was mentioned by nearly all the business leaders we spoke with – artificial intelligence. Spending on generative AI (GenAI) solutions is expected to double in 2024 and reach as much as $151 billion (with a b) by 2027, according to IDC.

It is therefore where all companies are currently placing their eggs.

AI has been the one technology that every industry has been obsessed with of late, whether that be how it is expected to automate many processes, if it can assist in streamlining workflows, who stands to benefit from its implementation, and most importantly what are the longterm consequences of favouring AI over traditional workers.

All of those questions are perhaps for another time, as right now, learners heading to, or in the midst of, study are only concerned with one thing – getting a job.

So here is what SA’s business leaders shared with Hypertext with AI serving as the key element.


If the above subheading did not make it obvious, STEM-related subjects are key – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – are essential these days if you’re wanting a job that has any element of IT to it.

It’s pretty much a non-negotiable at this stage, and based on the feedback we received, much like a qualification in the humanities, having a grounding in STEM can assist in branching out into many other areas down the line.

As such, a STEM-related qualification serves as the foundation upon which all other future learning decisions can be made.

“Pursuing IT or computer science unlocks a multitude of career paths in software development, cybersecurity, data analytics, and artificial intelligence,” emphasised Hope Lukoto, chief human resource officer at BCX. 

“In today’s data-driven landscape, the study of data science or analytics holds immense promise, offering lucrative prospects in fields like business intelligence, data mining, predictive analytics, and machine learning,” she added.

Of the same opinion was Mamongae Mahlare, executive chairperson of the Takealot Group.

“With a digital skills deficit of 70 000 ICT professionals in South Africa, there is an incredible opportunity for matriculants who pursue STEM and Computer Science. Job prospects in the digital economy are promising, with a growing demand for professionals holding certifications and having a working knowledge of the latest digital technologies and innovations,” she pointed out.

Sharing a closer view of the landscape from an FNB perspective, Christoph Nieuwoudt, chief data and analytics officer, stressed just how important genAI is going to be in the year and years ahead.

“New graduates need to be able to write programs and learn to use complex tools in areas like AI and Generative AI. Degree programmes in Engineering and Science including Computer Science develop these skills, but they are also found in Commerce degrees including Actuarial Science and Econometrics,” he explained.

“More generally, prospective students should consider that AI, including the rapid evolution of Generative AI will impact all knowledge workers across all fields of study and application whether in business, education, law, medicine or any other,” continued Nieuwoudt.

Equally cognisant of how genAI will prove critical moving forward was Naked, which is a local insurtech firm that has made AI a core part of its digital-first customer experience.

“Given that Naked is an AI-driven, digital-first company, I believe that fields such as technology, engineering and science continue to offer excellent prospects,” highlighted Sumarie Greybe, co-founder of Naked.

“AI, machine learning, cybersecurity, software engineering and data science are all fields that will continue to grow over the next decade. But there are also many opportunities coming to the fore in areas such as healthcare, agriculture and green technology,” she added on how AI will start to influence other sectors in time.

Don’t forget soft skills

While AI and the study thereof was a key factor across most feedback we received from local business leaders, there was still mention of the softer skills when it comes to what to pursue at university of college.

Many business leaders also advised that learners should keep their own personal areas of interest top of mind, especially to ensure the passion to forge a career path remains intact.

“Ultimately, the best choice depends on your interests, strengths, and long-term career goals. Take time to explore different options, consider your passion and skills, and seek guidance from career counselors, mentors, and professionals in various fields,” said Max Olivia, MD of Spar South Africa.

“Remember that the most fulfilling careers often stem from pursuing what truly interests and motivates. I would urge young people to also consider a trade as these skills are much needed in our society and it enables them to own their own business,” he outlined.

Speaking from the energy perspective, Ross Mains-Sheard, CEO and co-founder of Versofy SOLAR, noted how vocational work has sometimes been overlooked, but still holds a valuable place in any country.

“Furthermore, certain jobs are getting made redundant by the use of computers or outsourcing. But tradesmen, aren’t going to get replaced by robots. And that is what I like about solar is the fact that you need to be in a country that you’re in close to the target market that you’re in, in order to install a solar panel, you can’t outsource that to someone in Bangladesh, as an example,” he illustrated.

Offering a wholly different perspective, Carey van Vlaanderen, CEO of ESET Southern Africa, referenced the value that real world experiences can often hold, as many people heading from Matric into tertiary education are still unaware of what the real world holds.

“Often most matriculants are unsure of which industry they would like to pursue or what they would like to study once they leave school. Most of us don’t know what the world has to offer and what a specific career truly entails at that age,” said

“I definitely believe in the benefits of tertiary education, even though there have been many successful individuals who have gone far without it. Despite this, I think there is huge value in taking time after school – the so-called ‘Gap Year’. To be exposed to the value of money and how to earn it, see the world, and get exposed to career options,” she posited.

It also does not all have to be IT-related when it comes to important subjects to study right now, as the current geopolitical landscape shows just how important being able to manage such situations can be. This is something that Vodacom SA director of External Affairs, Taki Netshitenzhe, highlighted.

“Those not inclined to natural sciences but social sciences I would encourage them to study international relations, economics or political science because companies do not exist in a vacuum but are affected by implications of local and geo-politics which have environmental, social and economic dimensions.” 

Another crucial element, and one that is often not considered when initially studying, is the role that mentorship can play. This as a poor experience first coming out of university could prove detrimental, so getting your mentorship is another aspect for learners to consider once they have their qualification.

“Individuals should look for opportunities to work at companies where they will get the necessary mentorship and growth because, at the end of the day, one gets all these different strands of technology. They’re all great, but if you don’t know how to loom them together to get a strong rope you end up getting a frazzled little piece of string that will snap,” shared Malcolm Rabson, MD of specialised software development firm, Dariel Solutions.

Head on a swivel

The final element we’re highlighting here is doing your research, as there are learnerships, bursaries, and internships being offered all the time in South Africa as companies aim to provide opportunities to those who show promise and dedication.

These initiatives are often vital given the aforementioned cost of tertiary education, not to mention that it puts you on the radar of prospective employers down the line.

In the case of Dimension Data, assisting learners is one of the key initiatives for its business.

“At our company, we are actively involved in promoting digital inclusion through various initiatives. One of these initiatives is the Saturday School program, where we provide digital access and educational opportunities to grade 11 and 12 learners. Through this program, we offer courses in Computer Studies, Coding, Robotics, Cybersecurity, and IoT, ensuring that young students have a solid foundation in these essential areas,” noted Natalie Musonda, head of Sustainability and Diversity.

With South Africa experiencing its highest levels of unemployment in quite some time, it’s clear that those pursuing tertiary studies right now face a watershed moment. That said, if you see the industry trends and follow your interests, as many of the business leaders have mentioned above, it is a step in the right direction.

[Image – Photo by Soundtrap on Unsplash]


About Author


Related News