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We should urgently rethink methods of combating unemployment in South Africa to include AI


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the seventh Rector of the United Nations (UN) University and UN Under Secretary-General.

The eradication of unemployment in South Africa necessitates a comprehensive, innovative, and multidimensional strategy that transcends conventional approaches. It requires rethinking education and skills development, promoting entrepreneurship and small and medium-sized enterprises, capitalising on the digital economy, and reforming labour market policies.

South Africa has consistently registered one of the highest unemployment rates globally, with a current unemployment rate of 32.9%. Historical and socioeconomic complexities and systemic issues such as inequality, energy deficiency, insufficient state capacity, insufficient education that has deep roots in Bantu Education, and skill disparities have exacerbated this issue. Traditional approaches to addressing unemployment that have often centred on government policy interventions and macroeconomic adjustments have had limited success in fundamentally modifying the landscape of unemployment. To effectively combat the challenge, it is essential to rethink these strategies and investigate innovative, multifaceted approaches.

Re-evaluating the educational system and initiatives for skills development is the first step in redefining unemployment strategies. There is a substantial gap between the skills produced by the education sector and the skills required by employers in our labour market. It is crucial to align education and training with market demands to bridge this divide. This can be accomplished through industry-academia partnerships, dual education systems, and vocational training initiatives centred on developing job-specific skills. In addition, fostering a culture of lifelong learning and retraining could considerably improve the adaptability of the workforce in the face of changing labour market dynamics.

AI inclusion

We also need to reorientate education in South Africa to leverage developments in artificial intelligence (AI) to combat unemployment. The worldwide surge in AI applications is generating new employment opportunities and redefining existing roles. To capitalise on this trend, South Africa’s education system must be reoriented to equip students with AI skills and competencies. Integrating AI into the curriculum is the first stage in reorienting education to leverage the potential of the technology to combat unemployment. Such a reorientation should include introducing fundamental AI concepts at all educational levels, such as machine learning, natural language processing, and robotics. Students will be better prepared to enter the AI-driven labour market if they master these skills. In addition, the curriculum should foster the interdisciplinary application of AI, emphasising its relevance in fields such as healthcare, agriculture, and finance, thereby expanding employment opportunities.

We need to foster a problem-solving mindset. Understanding algorithms and models is insufficient for AI education; problem-solving skills are also necessary. AI’s strength resides in its capacity to solve complex problems, analyse trends, and make sound judgments. By instilling a problem-solving mindset, education can prepare students for diverse positions in the AI ecosystem such as data analysts, AI ethicists, and solutions architects. Project-based learning can bolster this strategy, in which students apply AI concepts to solve real-world problems, thereby acquiring employability-enhancing practical experience.

We need to increase AI knowledge across disciplines. AI is not limited to tech roles; it permeates multiple industries and transforms traditional occupations. Therefore, AI literacy should not be limited to computer science pupils but should be fostered across all disciplines. This includes equipping non-technical students with the skills necessary to leverage AI in their future professions by teaching them how AI can be applied in their fields. Accordingly, the compulsory AI course for all students at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) introduced in 2018 is an important step that needs to be emulated by other universities. In industries such as agriculture and healthcare, AI can be utilised for predictive analysis, automation, and decision-making, thereby creating new employment opportunities. One good example is the collaboration of the United Nations University, the Government of Italy, the Emilia-Romagna Region (RER), and the University of Bologna in launching the AI and Big Data Institute located at the supercomputing facility Leonardo to advance AI for sustainable development.

We need to fill the digital gaps, and AI presents numerous opportunities to do so. AI can exacerbate the digital divide, especially in South Africa, where access to digital resources fluctuates. To ensure that AI education and related employment opportunities are accessible to all, it is essential to bridge the digital divide. This requires investments in digital infrastructure, especially in underserved communities, and the implementation of programs to improve digital literacy.

Broadening entrepreneurship 

We must increase entrepreneurship and small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs). SMMEs are essential job-creation and economic development engines. Nonetheless, their potential is frequently unrealised due to limited access to capital, a shortage of business skills, and regulatory burdens. To foster entrepreneurship and SMMEs growth it is necessary to develop ecosystems that include accessible financing, mentorship, capacity development, and a regulatory environment conducive to business. A robust SMME sector can contribute to employment creation, economic diversification, and inclusive growth.

We need to capitalise on the digital economy. The digital economy offers ample opportunities for employment creation and economic expansion. Given its relatively high internet penetration and digital infrastructure, South Africa is well-positioned to capitalise on these opportunities. Initiatives promoting digital literacy, e-commerce, digital entrepreneurship, and the growth of digital industries may stimulate employment creation. In addition, digital platforms can facilitate innovative solutions such as online job-matching services, remote work, and opportunities in the freelance economy.

We need to increase our research and development (R&D) expenditure to improve human resources and infrastructure capacity. An example is the vast increase of post-doctoral fellows at the University of Johannesburg to over 700, resulting in UJ becoming the top producer of research in South Africa. Increasing expenditures on R&D is a strategic approach to reducing unemployment. This investment not only promotes innovation, resulting in the creation of new products, services, and industries, but also generates a demand for various skills, thereby generating employment opportunities. The relationship between R&D expenditures and job creation is complex.

Directly, the funding invested in R&D results in the creation of high-skilled research positions and administrative, communication, and project management positions. Indirectly, the innovations generated by R&D can lead to the formation of new industries and the expansion of existing ones, creating jobs in production, marketing, sales, and other sectors. In addition, R&D expenditures can stimulate the need for skills development and education, creating roles in these areas and preparing the workforce for future industries. Therefore, increasing R&D expenditure is a proactive approach to unemployment, creating jobs in the short term while fostering the development of industries and skills that will bolster employment in the long term.

The case for Private-Public Partnerships

Private-Public Partnerships (PPPs) are an effective method for combating unemployment. By leveraging the unique assets of the private and public sectors, PPPs can assist in the development of marketable skills, encourage entrepreneurship, and stimulate job creation through infrastructure development. The difficulty lies in establishing partnerships that balance the interests of all parties involved. PPPs can significantly combat unemployment and foster sustainable economic development with careful planning and execution. One way of achieving this is to introduce the sabbatical system where people in the private sector spend sabbatical time in the public sector and vice-versa. This way, there is a constant flow of knowledge between the private and the public sector.

We need to restructure employment policies. We must revisit policies and regulations governing the labour market to encourage employment creation and labour force participation. Such policies as strict dismissal regulations and high minimum earnings may discourage job creation. A balanced strategy protecting worker rights without impeding job creation is required. In addition, active labour market policies, such as job placement services, public works programs, and wage subsidies, can facilitate the integration of disadvantaged groups into the labour force.

In conclusion, eradicating unemployment in South Africa necessitates a comprehensive, innovative, and multidimensional strategy that transcends conventional approaches. This involves rethinking education and skills development, promoting entrepreneurship and small and medium-sized enterprises, capitalising on the digital economy, and reforming labour market policies. By adopting these strategies, South Africa can develop a robust, fair, and inclusive job market that provides opportunities for all its citizens. DM


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