From left, Sipho Pityana, President Cyril Ramaphosa, Bheki Ntshalintshali and Thulani Tshefuta hold hands after signing the jobs summit framework agreement in Midrand. Picture: THAPELO MOREBUDI
From left, Sipho Pityana, President Cyril Ramaphosa, Bheki Ntshalintshali and Thulani Tshefuta hold hands after signing the jobs summit framework agreement in Midrand. Picture: THAPELO MOREBUDI

Today, October 4, the jobs summit officially kicked-off in Gauteng. Convened by the National Economic Development Labour Council (Nedlac), its mission is to combat the country’s 27.2% unemployment rate by examining contributing factors.

A big concern will be kick-starting the recovery of a persistently weak economy that’s had significant implications for the first and second quarters of 2018. A total of 69,000 jobs have been lost in this period, although June 2018 did show 0.1% year-on-year growth from June 2017.

The summit, along with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent announcement of an economic “rescue” package, should map a clearer path to how private and public sectors can co-operate to turn a drastic situation around. Education will, no doubt, be on the agenda and, while continual learning won’t enable mass employment, it can play a pivotal role in future-proofing the existing workplace. 

Ramping up economic recovery is a process, which will also require a commitment to job retention, policy overhauls and the implementation of enablers for sustained small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) growth. In terms of job retention, the jobs summit needs to examine how to future-proof our workforce against irrelevance — named an even greater threat to humanity than exploitation by historian and professor Yuval Noah Harari.

Currently, just 23.8% of 1,041 surveyed South Africans feel confident that their skills will withstand the 10-year test, according to the MasterStart 2018 South African Workforce Barometer. Additionally, more than 80% find the job environment tougher now than it was 10 years ago.

Why? Most respondents cited the pressured economy; corruption; increased competition; fewer opportunities and a larger population; retrenchment; demographics; qualifications and experience as causative factors. Additionally, rapid change was named as a big catalyst for concern, with automation and technology identified as jeopardising jobs.

But our workforce isn’t as worried about automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic processing automation as it was about factors such as age and lack of skills. For young people, especially, lack of skills is seen as the biggest barrier. And that’s where continual learning was identified as an essential solve.

Collaborating with machines

Recently, the University of Stellenbosch Business School’s Dr Rose Phillips presented research that found 35% (close to 5.7-million) jobs in SA are at risk of “total digital automation” in just seven years. Consider the impact of that on top of an already fragile economy and some of the world’s worst unemployment statistics, and it’s obvious we need to act decisively and collectively. On the flip-side, Phillips believes that if SA can double the speed our workforce acquires the skills required to collaborate with machines — we could save a million jobs.

Cue continual learning. By making access to ongoing learning accessible and affordable in “snackable” sized pieces, we can upskill people with the requisite capacity to survive and thrive in the era of Industry 4.0. It’ll be up to private and public stakeholders to not only make learning material relevant and relatable, but also available. This means looking at new ways to present tertiary education options.

It also means working with corporates to ensure they’re constantly re-skilling their employees to promote them or train them for other available positions. This is one of the key ways to curb retrenchments — an essential part of Ramaphosa’s rescue plan. A big part of this will be upskilling humans to share their workload with robots — something fewer than 20% of respondents in the MasterStart survey said they’re currently comfortable doing.

More positively, 95% of respondents believed life-long learning would help them remain relevant and 58% were planning to study online in the future. This shows a proactive appetite for learning within our workforce. The onus, then, falls on education stakeholders to have the knowledge and creativity necessary to predict which skills will command the greatest demand going forwards — skills such as influencing and advising people, teaching and programming — and ensuring these digital capabilities are imparted through learning materials designed to efficiently bridge capability gaps.

• Scholtz is chief learning officer at MasterStart.