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Opinionista

AI and the employment crisis — friend or foe?*

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Sharmi Surianarain is the chief impact officer and Sizwe Hlatshwayo is a call centre guide at Harmbee Youth Employment Accelerator.

The way young people navigate the world of work is changing and shifting into the digital realm. This is unquestionably true at the global level, but it’s also happening right here in South Africa.

The debate is raging: is AI going to steal our jobs or make them easier? Will it create new ones or will those left behind be further excluded?

What if, instead, we used this most pivotal moment in our technological advancement to reimagine a different world? What if we used our most cutting-edge technologies, in combination with our most human-centred design, to ensure that those most excluded are actually the best served? 

What if, instead of despairing that ChatGPT and others like it will take our entry-level jobs, we created hope? Hope powered by excellent, youth-centred, tech-enabled customer service?

While most of the raging debate around technological progress focuses on the prospect of jobs being lost, the work we are undertaking at Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator proves otherwise. We are combining some of the most cutting-edge of these technologies with our most powerful weapon in the fight against unemployment – talented and resilient young people – to ensure that the fight against AI is not lost. 

Harambee’s offices in Braamfontein typically brim with youthful energy and optimism. As you walk in, visitors are greeted by young South Africans whose can-do attitude is contagious. Young people like Sandile Ngakane conduct tours of our office while effortlessly discussing Harambee’s inclusive digital platform, sayouth.mobi

A large part of that story showcases the work of our contact centre guides who engage with young people on average 2,000 to 2,500 times a day through calls, chats and emails. Our social channels reach over 40,000 young people on TikTok and more than half a million on Facebook. 

The purpose of these conversations, regardless of the digital channel, is to connect young people to the labour market by providing helpful and practical work-seeking advice, coaching and motivation.

The way young people navigate the world of work is changing and shifting into the digital realm. This is unquestionably true at the global level, but it’s also happening right here in South Africa. Our data shows that access to employment opportunities is highly unequally distributed across the country. But we still have over 3.5 million youth from nearly every single municipality across South Africa signed up on the sayouth.mobi platform. 

SA Youth breaks through young people’s barriers to entry, like geographical location, data costs and transport to access opportunities. It’s clear that where young people can access opportunities via digital means, they will.

During the recruiting period at the end of last year for the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) school assistant programme, where they created opportunities across the country, we saw sign-ups increase by a factor of 10, to as many as 1.5 million unique applicants in under one month.

The prospect of work-within-reach drove this huge surge; our challenge – with our partners in government – was how to handle it. Human connection and guidance are important elements of our inclusive model. But high-touch human processes can’t scale to provide seamless 24/7 support at the volumes we experienced. So we turned to AI, not to make our highly trained human guides obsolete, but rather to support them. 

AI and youth-led customer service has helped solve three issues. 

First, sheer scale. We co-created a tech solution that blended our own contact centre talent with advanced conversational AI technology. The result is a customer support chatbot that’s centred on imaginative and empathetic conversational design, driven by the experience of the young unemployed work-seeker.

The chatbot can streamline simple queries and direct them appropriately without losing the human feel. At the same time, our actual human guides are freed up to address more complex queries. Neither of these experiences is out of touch with the lived reality of the unemployed work-seeker. During the three-week DBE recruitment drive, the chatbot handled 37,000 chats, providing assistance 24/7, which further drove inclusivity because unemployment does not keep office hours. 

The second issue AI has helped solve is how to coach and develop our human guides without taking them off the phones or out of the contact centre. “Coachmee” is a bite-sized personal mastery and goal-setting chatbot also deployed during the DBE sign-up surge. Both guides and work-seekers alike were able to work through personal goals and celebrate quick wins each day.

As a Harambee contact centre guide, Sinomtha says, “I fell in love with [Coachmee because] I felt like I found a new friend that I could share my thoughts and feelings with, without being judged. I found the platform very helpful because I could plan my goals on a daily basis. If a goal isn’t reached, there is some great motivation… and zero judgement. Coachmee is a place where I can be vulnerable, get some motivation, plan, and grow.”

Our experience is that through a combination of conversational AI technology and ubiquitous chat-based platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, we can provide work-seekers with daily support that addresses both their professional and personal concerns.

The third issue AI will help us solve is how to increase engagement and, thus, success beyond the initial sign-up. We know that the more relevant the jobs young people search and apply for, the greater the chance of their success. So, it must be as easy as possible to view the appropriate job vacancies on SA Youth.

We drive this outcome by measuring the metric that matters – the number of vacancies an individual views and applies for, which varies by user, from a handful to hundreds – and analysing the data to understand patterns among user groups viewing many opportunities versus those viewing too few. Historically, acting on this data by proactively nudging them towards the right opportunities has been labour-intensive, based on human hunches. As our data set grows, we are beginning to segment our user base in order to find patterns of successful work-seeking behaviour and nudge young people to replicate this.

Young people increasingly want to search for opportunities via digital and hybrid means, and AI is part of the solution to meet that need. However, along with these advances come new exclusionary barriers. High data costs persist as a key blocker, leading work-seekers to curtail their job research or simply not search online at all. 

SA Youth is inclusive by design – it’s free to use and zero-rated, which means no data is required to use the platform. We must address data costs for more of the digital infrastructure of work-seeking so that young people are not left behind.

And we must go further than that. For too many young South Africans, arguing over data costs, let alone AI, is a luxury: they don’t have access to broadband, let alone electricity.

To remedy this requires new kinds of systemic interventions, and we are excited about recent efforts to promote easier broadband deployment in our most excluded areas.

Whether you believe that digitisation and artificial intelligence are forces of destruction or creation, one thing is clear: no one will be insulated from the impacts. By turning these innovations to not only just serve but be shaped by society’s most excluded – unemployed youth – we all stand to benefit. BM/DM

*The title of this article was written by Chat GPT. As human authors, we offer a different ending: It’s up to us.

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