The 4th Industrial Revolution: Will South Africa Be Ready for the Jobs of the Future?

SYSTEMS & TECHNOLOGY, TALENT MANAGEMENT   |   7 minutes  |   November 27, 2019

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The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) represents a new era of innovation in technology that will enhance human-machine relationships, unlock new market opportunities, and fuel growth across the global economy.1 In South Africa, various groups are promoting the 4IR and taking steps to achieve its vision. But there’s a long way to go before South Africans can enjoy the fruits of innovation-led prosperity. Firstly, a sufficient supply of advanced engineering talent needs to be in place. Beyond that, people in regular jobs need to develop the skills to deal with the disruptive effects of new technologies in their work environment. The future of South Africa’s education system might be the most important consideration in its journey towards the 4IR.2

What is the 4IR?

The 4IR is a visionary plan for countries around the world to adopt game-changing technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.3 Most importantly, the 4IR does not consider any of these technologies in isolation. Instead, it encompasses a fusion in which these high-powered tech tools integrate with our physical and biological worlds.4 Think ubiquitous computers, interconnected digital devices, intelligent robots, autonomous vehicles, gene editing, printing of organic matter, and even brain enhancements. An effective way of understanding what the 4IR is about is to consider it in the context of the previous three industrial revolutions:5

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Today, the most talked-about transformative technology, one that will certainly lead the way in the 4IR, is AI.6 The predictive power of AI has already come to define many of the digitally enabled products and services we use every day.

In the GetSmarter Disruptive Tech Survey, which engages global business leaders and working professionals to measure demand for different technologies, AI came out on top in 2018 and 2019. Following AI, the other leading innovations that respondents were most interested in include:

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While unique in some respects, these three fields are all linked to AI, and many pioneering firms have generated significant value through their deployment.7 Global manufacturers, for example, use advanced analytics to pinpoint redundancies in their processes, thereby saving on production costs.8

In South African businesses, investment in AI has only recently taken off, with a growing number of companies expressing interest in AI-based experiments.9 Even so, AI adoption in the country lags far behind the rate in the United States (US), where data science has been making waves for many years.

In the US, data skills development began long ago

Underneath the multilayered system of the 4IR technologies lies the primary source that powers it all: data. The rise of big data in developed economies in the mid-2000s10 sparked a flurry of interest among employers across the US. Big data was believed to be the key to unprecedented value gains for firms that could find the right talent. A recruitment race followed as businesses scrambled to employ workers with advanced training in mathematics, science, and computer programming. The attractive salaries for these data engineering jobs fuelled a wave of interest from jobseekers, which accelerated when, in 2012, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) famously dubbed data scientist as the sexiest job of the 21st century.11 Soon after, business schools across the US started offering data science programmes,12 and when this wasn’t enough to satisfy the huge demand, private education providers stepped in to offer coding bootcamps.13

Since then, demand for data science education has shown no signs of slowing down. The following graph, reproduced from Google Trends, shows the relative volume of searches for data science as a field of study in the US over the last three years. This can be considered a significant indicator of the demand in the education market.

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In South Africa, 4IR demands the most attention

Change in one part of the world tends to affect other parts. Known as the spillover effect, it’s an attribute of today’s globalised economy and the interconnectedness of different countries.14

An example of the spillover effect can be observed when comparing the surging demand for data science education in the US – as shown above – with search trends in South Africa. The graph below shows that over the last three years, interest in data science education in South Africa has been relatively low. In comparison, however, the 4IR has become pre-eminent.

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The popularisation of data science in the US over the last decade effectively laid the foundation to enable the observed momentum behind the 4IR in South Africa. And the 4IR is indeed a focal point of the current economic narrative in South Africa.15

Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, announced the 4IR in a bid to encourage governments around the world to adopt policies that would help achieve the vision of super-charged economic growth through innovation in technology.16 Several states have heeded the call, including South Africa. President Cyril Ramaphosa, who, in 2018, was appointed co-chair of the International Labour Organisation’s Global Commission on the Future of Work,17 has established South Africa’s own Presidential Commission on the 4IR.18 Ramaphosa is bold in his enthusiasm for the 4IR: he recently said he believed the country has the potential to become the new Silicon Valley.19

The idea of a prosperous future driven by technology is compelling, considering South Africa’s current state of unemployment and slow economic growth.20 However, some remain wary, warning that unchecked technological progress could widen economic inequalities.21 While others express doubt over whether South Africa’s current infrastructure and skills base will ever be able to support such ambitiously high levels of innovation. 22

Only time will tell how the 4IR will play out in South Africa. But it seems clear that if the country is to become a legitimate participant in the coming revolution, it will need to make some fundamental changes first. Chief among these will be to combat the low levels of digital literacy of its workforce.

Demand for tech skills in South Africa is soaring, but supply falls short

As more and more global companies set off to obtain the widely reported benefits of AI,23 the demand for professionals skilled in data science and advanced analytics has grown exponentially. In South Africa, this demand far exceeds supply, to the effect that the country’s digital skills gap has become particularly severe.24 Last year, South Africa ranked 49th out of 63 economies in the World Digital Competitiveness Ranking, an initiative of the International Institute for Management Development to measure the extent of adoption and investment in digital technologies of countries around the world.25

In an effort to bridge the digital skills gap, several training academies and internship programmes have been established in Cape Town and Johannesburg.26 Despite this, many South African companies are still struggling to find data-savvy workers. In the country’s financial services sector especially, business leaders report experiencing difficulties in recruiting staff with relevant digital skills.27

South Africa’s education system lacks a technology focus

Research by Wits University and the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa reported a “chronic shortage” of the digital skills and competencies that South African businesses require.28 The country’s education system in many ways exacerbates this problem, as it isn’t geared to produce the high-end information and communication technology (ICT) skills at the scale that’s needed.29

Statistics released in 2018 by the Department of Higher Education and Training reveal how little emphasis is placed on technology. Across all public and private higher education institutions, which account for over half of South Africa’s post-school student population, the share of students in programmes related to science, engineering, and technology was less than 30 per cent of total enrolments.30 At technical and vocational education training colleges, the numbers were even lower, with only five per cent of students enrolled in information technology and computer science programmes.31

These lacklustre figures can be attributed to low levels of interest in technology among students, as well as inadequate infrastructure for education and poor teacher training.32 To help combat this trend, the national government is tackling the root of the problem. Earlier in 2019, the Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga announced plans to include coding and robotics in the curriculum for grades R to nine.33 Large multinational tech firms like Google are reportedly assisting in building the required learning platforms, while some of the country’s leading academic institutions have committed to help with teacher training. The success of this initiative remains to be seen, but investment at the basic education level is certainly a welcome step towards creating the pool of ICT skills South Africa needs to compete in the 4IR.34

Who is responsible for bridging the digital skills gap?

The need for continuous learning is becoming increasingly important as new technologies change traditional ways of working. In the GetSmarter Disruptive Tech Survey, over 90 per cent of respondents said their staff would need upskilling to deal with disruption from technology. When asked whether they viewed continuous learning as a ‘personal strategy’ or a ‘business responsibility,’ 70 per cent answered the former. This suggests that many professionals believe the responsibility to upskill lies with individuals rather than the companies they work for.

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The expectation that individuals should take responsibility for their own upskilling can be problematic.35 For example, employees may fear coming across as incompetent if they ask for help. Or they may assume that their employers will think they’ll leave soon after they get upskilled and thus decide it’s not worth investing in them. Other individuals might feel dissatisfied with an employer who’s not invested in their development and decide to change jobs. In any event, if employees are expected to take sole responsibility for their own upskilling, there is a risk of perpetuating South Africa’s current skills gap.36

The path forward for South Africa

The exact time frame for the 4IR isn’t known, though Accenture expects that, by 2026, it could unlock around R1.4 trillion of value in South Africa across agriculture, infrastructure, manufacturing, and financial services.37

Ensuring that South Africa’s workforce will be ready for the future of work will likely require a combination of effort from various stakeholders. Mounting enthusiasm for the 4IR from different groups is a positive sign, but translating that energy into strong, cross-sectoral partnerships will be the key to effective digital skills creation.38

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