Developers, software and cyber security specialists, IT managers in shortage, expert says

ASTANA – The Digital Kazakhstan state programme is available for every Kazakh citizen who has a computer with Internet access. A professional presentation and the draft programme can be found on the Zerde National Information and Communication Holding website. Since the holding manages its implementation, The Astana Times spoke with its chair of the board Assel Zhienbayeva, who answered a number of questions regarding the chosen topic as a skilled IT professional.

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Assel Zhienbayeva

What is the status of the Digital Kazakhstan programme?

The digital topic is relevant and not only because the rapid development of technology is one of the key challenges for business and state in any country. For our country, digitalisation can become a real platform for maintaining competitiveness in the future. That is why the accelerated technological modernisation of the country was a number one priority in the January State of the Nation Address of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. At the moment, the concept of Digital Kazakhstan is ready and the draft has been preliminarily agreed upon by all state authorities; it means we are consistently moving in the given direction.

Nevertheless, when the talk is about creating and developing high-tech digital infrastructure in the country, isn’t it taking it too lightly that the majority of villagers (40-45 percent of the country’s population) perceive the Internet almost only as a way of quick exchange of messages via e-mail or messengers?

It is only partially true. The high-speed Internet will provide an opportunity to render high-quality health care and education services to people who live in remote areas; moreover, it will become an electronic trading platform. People will be able to sell goods and services online and distances will no longer be a barrier to the provision of services.

The Alibaba platform in China, which has connected international buyers with small and medium-sized businesses, is a striking example. The business, which 15 years ago was located in an apartment, contributed to the creation of 100 million jobs and a 10 million army of entrepreneurs! Today, Alibaba controls 80 percent of the Chinese e-commerce market and generates 2 percent of the GDP.

Digitalisation as a world trend also inspires domestic business to create similar analogues. Kazakhstan has a developed agribusiness and the objective set by the state – increase in the gross output of agricultural products by 30 percent – is based on the idea of a consistent digital transformation of the industry.

Yes, indeed, digital technology became available to villagers through mobile phones and applications. However, digitalisation is making villagers master their IT skills more and more. If you want to trade, go to an online fair! Here, you can sell your goods and buy what you need on the farm.

A drip irrigation system, for example, which is managed from one centre, will facilitate the cooperation of villagers, leading to the consolidation of farms. In turn, a large farm constitutes a great opportunity for the development of agricultural producers, labour productivity growth and cheaper products for the end user. With regard to our mentality, we can say that we “harness our horses slowly but drive them fast.” That is, life itself will motivate villagers to be braver in mastering IT technologies.

A villager should be familiar with the computer even to open a small poultry house, as the incubation process is fully automated and everything is regulated at the push of a button. And if a project is planned with a full production cycle from breeding to processing, one cannot do without strong IT skills!

For this reason, the programme also includes online platforms in public service centres and Kazpost so that our citizens can access basic IT skills.

There has been talk about broadband Internet access in villages and auls for several years, but where is the result? The programme indicators also show when it is fully implemented, only 81 percent of the population is expected to use the Internet and the corresponding percent of digital literacy is similar. Why is that the case; why will every citizen not be able to use the Internet?

Today, in the most active segment of the population, the age group between 6 and 74, about 77 percent of the population has access to the Internet. When it comes to 81 percent, this is an increase in the number of Internet users for this age group. The state, business and households are definitely interested in having 100 percent coverage as soon as possible. Economic digitisation will help to accelerate the population’s involvement in the Internet.

Who will finance the programme and related projects?

Related projects will be financed through public-private partnership or through the informatisation service model. PPP financing is regulated by the Law On Public-Private Partnership. The service model we are talking about implies a centralised approach to informatisation based on the provision of information and communication services to state authorities. Such services are provided by the IC infrastructure operator with the involvement of IT companies. Details are available on our website zerde.gov.kz.

“Human capital development” is the phrase that came into this report, but not into people’s lives. Kazakhstan still does not have adequate distant schooling and high school online education, there are no electronic textbooks, it is impossible to receive additional knowledge using digitalisation and there are no catalogues of video lectures, since there is no video lectures database. What is your position on this matter?

You raise a very relevant topic. Today the whole world actively discusses the issue of education, its quality and the development paradigm. The long-term world trend is the promotion of mass education based on its accessibility. This trend sets the main parameters of the future education and becomes the development driver of additional alternative education in Kazakhstan.

This year, the WikiBilim Public Foundation with the support of Kazakh universities has launched the Open University of Kazakhstan project (analogue of the well-known Coursera). The educational platform offers free access to online courses from leading university teachers in the country.

In fact, this project is a greenfield project, where all the content is Kazakh. More than 80 percent of the courses are taught in the state language. Anyone can freely study through the online courses housed on the platform when and where it suits him or her. This project is purely social, not commercial. We are discussing with WikiBilim the possibility of implementing a project to increase the digital literacy of the population.

Needless to say that today distance education in Kazakhstan is imperfect, but there are positive aspects. Distant learning has been practiced for more than one year. Both public and private universities provide online learning tools for students from other regions. Some universities provide the opportunity to receive a double degree, one of which can be obtained through distance learning. Distant education graduates receive state-recognised diplomas without any indication of the mode of study (distant/extramural.) However, only people who already have a degree in secondary vocational or higher education can study in the university by distant learning.

Why does the nation need to improve the skills of specialists in information and communication technology if it can attract super professionals who could work in remote access mode?

Let me repeat myself. In the January state of the nation address, the head of state defined the number one priority – accelerated technological modernisation of the economy. And economic transformation is directly related to IT-technology.

Yes, our economy has long been experiencing a labour shortage, but this applies not only to Kazakhstan. The U.S. economy alone will have up to 50,000 vacancies for IT professionals each year. According to the global study 2016 Manpower Talent Shortage Survey attended by 42,000 employers from 43 countries, IT specialists are the second highly demanded professionals. We are in severe shortage of developers, software specialists, architects, data and cyber security experts, IT leaders and managers. This means that we cannot and should not rely on the external market to attract specialists!

Labour shortage has a negative side as well: the lack of competition among specialists in any industry leads to a decrease in competition, and, therefore, to a decrease in labour productivity of specialists in demand. Therefore, until we solve the problem of “nurturing” our own talents for the IT industry and streamline it, this issue will be a serious obstacle for the development of business and production in the country.

How does the holding participate in solving this problem?

Among other things, we create and introduce an IT qualification system. The system should change the relationships of all sides represented in the skilled labour market: education, professionals and business.

We have already developed an industry qualification framework that allowed us to inventory occupational categories in order to establish qualification levels in the IT industry. Professional standards have also been developed, the main function of which is to set the requirements for the quality of work, knowledge and skills. Educational standards in universities will be built on their basis. In fact, professional standards are needed by the labour market in training IT professionals who will be in demand in the economic sectors.

It is also important to cooperate with foreign partners. Thus, in April 2017, during the working visit of Prime Minister of Kazakhstan Bakytzhan Sagintaev to the United States, an agreement was signed between Cisco International Limited and National Infocommunication Holding Zerde JSC. One of the areas of cooperation is the training and retraining of personnel for digital work. Ten thousand students will be involved in the programme by 2020 with the support of Kazakhstan’s institutes and universities.