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The machines are coming: A rethink of Africa’s employment is needed

August 10, 2017 • General, Opinion

Opinion, AI, Machines, Africa, Workforce, Rethink, Change

Daniel Schwartzkopff, Co-Founder: DataProphet

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will dramatically reshape the world of work and force us to rethink our approach to our careers, our lives, and our aspirations. With a global market estimated to reach $70 billion by 2020, machine learning is driving fundamental change in the way every industry operates. Learning algorithms are already pioneering advances in customer service, manufacturing, healthcare, auditing, legal counsel, and insurance underwriting, with more industries to follow.

Old notions of job security have all but disappeared: the thought of working for the same company for 40 years until retirement is laughable. In 1965, corporations remained in the S&P 500 Index for an average of 33 years; by 2012 this had already shrunk to 18 years. With the rapid pace of development bankrupting and displacing large behemoths like Kodak and Blockbuster, no one should be under the illusion that a company is too big to fail.

Rise of the machines

In PwC’s latest report on the impact of automation, up to 38% of jobs in the US are at risk, with Germany (35%) and the UK (30%) not far behind. And it’s not manual labour that is most in peril: accountants, lawyers, call centre agents, machine operators, and insurance underwriters are at or near the top of lists of jobs most likely to become redundant thanks to machines.

In response, it is likely that the governments will start implementing policies to protect an already fragile job market. However, the commercial benefits of automation are vast and far-reaching. In an example recently cited by the World Economic Forum, a Chinese factory in Dongguan City replaced 90% of its workforce with machines, leading to an incredible 250% boost in productivity, with defects reduced by 80%.

Governments need to take a more forward-looking approach and find innovative ways of incentivising and equipping people to educate themselves. Learning the types of skills unlikely to be replaced by machines in the coming years is critical – especially here in Africa.

SA / Africa most vulnerable

South Africa’s latest unemployment figures paint a bleak picture: the official rate is 27.7%, or 6.2 million people who want to work but can’t find employment. A closer look, however, will reveal that the vast majority of the unemployed are without a tertiary education. Among graduates the unemployment rate is a mere 7.3%.

To help stimulate job creation, government and industry have worked hard at establishing a business process outsourcing (BPO) industry as a key job creator and economic driver. One industry body claims the sector already employs more than 30 000 people, and aims to grow this to 80 000 by 2021. Considering most of the outsourced jobs are in call centres and customer service, it is alarming that so much effort is being put into industries that are most at risk of automation.

Across the continent, explosive population growth is expected to bring a further 122 million people into the workforce by 2020. Due to shortcomings in the continent’s education sector, these workers are likely to be overwhelmingly unskilled or semi-skilled. Absorbing 122 million people into formal economic activity will be paramount to the continent’s on-going development and prosperity.

We need an urgent change in how we approach skills development and work.

Rethinking our approach to work

Those wishing to future-proof their careers should stop relying on traditional notions of work. Many of the skills required for the future – such as data science and machine learning – are not yet formally offered at university level, and even where they are the industry changes so quickly that by the time a student exits a four-year degree, much of their knowledge is already outdated. In response, we should all aspire to a lifelong approach to learning.

Developing skills in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) fields, as well as arts and humanities – where machines will struggle with replicating design, creation, empathy, and problem-solving thought – represents workers’ best defence against automation. Taking up online courses in specific fields that teach you marketable skills, for example, is one cost-effective way of empowering this new wave of jobseekers.

Encouragingly, many modern tech companies no longer look solely at academic transcripts and qualifications as the main benchmark of your employability. Instead, practical tests are given that gauge a candidate’s actual ability to complete work-related tasks and think creatively and laterally.

New skills for new jobs

This shift in skills development and training may pose severe challenges to those job seekers who are unable to pursue self-learning opportunities. Government, schools, and universities should therefore modernise their approach to training and education to ensure our immense talent pool is not left under- or unutilised.

It is certain that some jobs will be disrupted – even eliminated – by automation. Workers will need to develop a new mix of skills to meet the demands of entirely new job functions created in the course of our technological progress. Opposing progress to preserve automatable jobs is futile – it would not be wise to be remembered as the Luddites of the 21st century.

In a positive sign, 94% of executives surveyed in a recent study agreed that when administrative tasks are automated, the demand for jobs that require soft skills – such as creative problem-solving, collaboration, and communication – will grow.

It’s high time we overhaul our education and skills development sector. The alternative – millions of unemployed and unemployable people – is too frightening to contemplate.

By Daniel Schwartzkopff, Co-Founder: DataProphet


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