How can Africa prepare for the future of work?

January 25, 2016

 

Many industry observers believe that we are on the cusp of a Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The first Industrial Revolution, driven by steam, created new manufacturing processes. The second was driven by electricity which led to many new inventions and witnessed the expansion of steel and petroleum. The third is the one we are living through now – when IT and electronics have transformed our lives and manufacturing has gone digital.

 

 

Those that believe we are about to launch into a fourth industrial – or “smart” – revolution say that it is driven by developments that will see society simplify things, remove bottlenecks and do more with less. It will bring together previously disjointed fields such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing and genetics and biotechnology – all building on and amplifying one another.

Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, argues that this distinct stage – the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” – isn’t a continuation of the third revolution because of the speed of current breakthroughs, which have no historical precedent, and are disrupting almost every industry in every country. For example, engineers, designers, and architects are combining computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering, and synthetic biology to pioneer a symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, the products we consume, and even the buildings we inhabit.

Whether you believe this constitutes a new revolution or whether it’s a continuation of the third revolution, one thing is certain, it will cause massive disruption. This reality is examined in a new report by the World Economic Forum, The Future Of Jobs, which imagines how jobs in their industry will change up to the year 2020, and the new skills needed to drive them.

 

The jobs that won’t survive, ones that will

The report, which covered 15 economies accounting for about 1.86 billion workers or approximately 65% of the world’s total workforce, found that there will be hard times ahead with job gains unable to offset expected losses – estimated at a total loss of 7.1 million jobs – in the next five years.

So what jobs are most at risk?

According to estimates in the report, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist. The jobs most at risk are concentrated in routine white collar office functions, such as office and administrative roles – expected to account for two-thirds of job losses.

The jobs that are looking to “win” and gain a total of 2 million jobs are in computer and mathematical, and architecture and engineering related fields. Manufacturing and production roles are also expected to see a further bottoming out but are also anticipated to have relatively good potential for up-skilling, redeployment and productivity enhancement through technology.

So those choosing college degrees today should hedge their bets on a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) course – although there is a heavy emphasis on the need to specialise within this.

As for the job title to aim for, the report described two new and emerging job types which stood out due to the frequency and consistency with which they were mentioned across practically all industries and geographies.

The first is the role of data analyst, which companies expect will help them make sense and derive insights from the torrent of data generated by technological disruptions. The second is the role ofspecialised sales representative, as practically every industry will need to become more skilled in commercialising and explaining their new offerings to unfamiliar businesses, government clients or consumers.

How will this affect Africa?

The impact on African can be looked at in two ways – either that this will bring huge opportunity, or that it will perpetuate poverty and increase inequality.

In the past the biggest beneficiaries of innovation tended to be the providers of intellectual and physical capital. The demand for highly skilled workers has increased while the demand for workers with less education and lower skills has decreased. So it is natural to assume that the less skilled African labour force – principally employed in subsistence agriculture and the informal sector – who have low literacy rates and great barriers to acquiring a quality education will suffer greatly in the “catch-up” to the fourth revolution.

For example, the next stage of 3D printing, and its increasing affordability could badly hit cottage industry manufacturing and metal smiths (known as jua kali in East Africa).

Behind in STEM

In another example of the lag; sub-Saharan Africa research in terms of STEM – the skill area expected to make the greatest gains – the continent significantlylags behind other subject areas. Excluding South Africa, research in the physical sciences and STEM makes up only 29% of all research in the region, compared to an average of 68% in Malaysia which had the same research output as Africa in 2003. It gets worse: the share of STEM research in sub-Saharan Africa has declined by 0.2% every year since 2002.

For the fourth industrial revolution to be considered in terms of an “opportunity” for Africa will be down to how fast Africans can redesign their education systems, adopt to new technologies and whether they can afford them. Otherwise the continent will remain on the consumption, not production end.

This is not be an impossible task. Already we are seeing increased attention in STEM education in Africa: there is more investment – for example last year the Mastercard Foundation announced a $25 million commitment to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences – and more institutions, like theInternational Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering (2ie) in Burkina Faso are starting to crop up.

One thing about this new era of change is that being led by technology and innovation – it can provide limitless opportunity and the outcomes are going to be hard to predict.

Paul Clark, an Africa specialist at Ashburton Investments, explains that this can give a positive outlook for Africa’s incorporation into the revolution describing how Africans have been strong adopters of new technologies and that Africa has even leap-frogged existing developments. A case in point is how with more than half of all the mobile money platforms in the world, sub-Saharan Africa is leading the globe in rolling out financial products to masses of people who were previously excluded from this area of the formal economy.

 

By Samantha Spooner, Writer, Mail & Guardian Africa