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How the digital workforce can reduce unemployment

Whatever the scope or focus of a company, all members of staff need to be digitally fluent, and those in leadership positions need a thorough understanding of what it means to lead successfully in the digital era. Photo: File

Whatever the scope or focus of a company, all members of staff need to be digitally fluent, and those in leadership positions need a thorough understanding of what it means to lead successfully in the digital era. Photo: File

Published Mar 20, 2022

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South Africa’s unemployment rate gets media attention every quarter when Statistics South Africa releases its report on the country’s state of joblessness. Right now, it stands at 34.9 percent, which translates to 7.8-million people. But there is a much bigger scourge looming – that of unemployability. It is characterised by an inadequately educated workforce and is quickly becoming the root cause of unemployment.

There currently exists a mismatch between the skills South Africans have and the jobs that are available. With Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies – such as cloud computing, big data, data security, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning – fast becoming integrated into the workplace, South Africa might find itself with an idle population incapable of filling thousands of jobs.

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According to the World Economic Forum, South Africa has strong ties to advanced economies, particularly Europe, making it vulnerable to changes in those countries. With these developed markets becoming digitised, we risk falling off the global economic wagon. A digitally literate population is seemingly our only hope of remaining a global player and the springboard for companies looking to enter the African market.

We need a digitally astute workforce. Whatever the scope or focus of a company, all members of staff need to be digitally fluent, and those in leadership positions need a thorough understanding of what it means to lead successfully in the digital era.

Reskilling people to work alongside technology

American sociologist, Richard Sennet, said the greatest dilemma faced by the modern artisan-craftsman is the machine. He meant that mankind is still dealing with the idea of whether the machine is a friendly tool or an enemy replacing the work of the human hand.

Since the First Industrial Revolution, machines have been edging humans out of workplaces, making menial jobs redundant while simultaneously creating new roles that required more skill. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, with its cyber-physical tools and systems, promises to do the same, but this time to both menial and highly skilled jobs. Soon, we might see the roles of accountants and news reporters changing drastically.

Today, technology already can do some jobs better than humans. Drones are delivering packages faster (The South African National Blood Service is already rolling out its drone delivery service), self-driving vehicles are already on the road, and self-service terminals at supermarkets are already replacing cashiers.

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Reskilling for a digital future would mean that people will need to work collaboratively with machines. Simply put, more people will need to be skilled back-end users for digital interfaces, inputting commands and algorithms. Software engineers, coders and content producers are some of the key roles that come to mind when thinking of the present-day workers collaborating with technology.

Educational institutes hold the key to transformation

Perhaps South Africa’s only hope of a seamless digital transformation will come from our educational institutes. Before we can create a digital workforce, people will have to first understand the benefits and pitfalls of working alongside emerging technologies.

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Business schools have been trying to fulfil the role of digital transformers for a number of years now. However, far too many of them are accessible only to executives and larger companies because of their steep price and limited intake.

The Johannesburg Business School, based at the University of Johannesburg, is trying to buck this trend, making education accessible to individual entrepreneurs and small, micro and medium enterprises. Born in the digital era, it places Industry 4.0 technologies at the centre of its curricula.

A more flexible, future-fit approach is essential to ensure that executive education, in particular, is more specific to organisational strategy and individual roles. When it comes to ongoing education for executives, the one-size-fits-all approach just does not cut it. Businesses operating in such a constantly changing environment need a new kind of leader. They need leaders who are multi-disciplinary in approach, solutions-focused and digitally perceptive.

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Organisations of all sizes recognise the need for a paradigm shift in how they are organised and managed. And from a skills point of view, their focus is on getting ready for digital transformation, which requires digital literacy. Like all other educational institutions, business schools need to adapt to this reality and cater for the changing needs of their clients, their employees and society as a whole.

Perhaps creating a digital workforce at tertiary level is not the answer. It might be a more logical approach to train people for a digital working world much earlier in life. The Department of Basic Education has recently undergone a rewrite of its Life Skills curricula, adding digital literacy and the importance of working alongside Industry 4.0 technologies within the workspace.

It is an encouraging sign of the country’s future: we will have a generation of young adults who will form the core of a South African digital workforce. Hopefully, by then, all this talk of unemployability will be no more.

Tumi Nkosi - University of Johannesburg

IOL TECH

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