The founder and CEO of Atari, Nolan Bushnell, said a few years ago that “today, companies have to radically revolutionise themselves every few years just to stay relevant. That’s because technology and the internet have transformed the business landscape forever. The fast-paced digital age has accelerated the need for companies to become agile.”
We are in a digital age – amid the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). This is accompanied by sweeping changes to technology, industries, societal patterns and processes. Alongside this, the very future of the world of work is shifting, and we must respond with a revolution of our own. It stands to reason then that human capacity needs to radically revolutionise in tandem.
In South Africa, it is apparent that greater investment in upskilling, reskilling and learning are required to ensure the workforce remains relevant and competitive globally. This is imperative in our context when you consider the data.
According to Stats SA, under the expanded definition, 74% of young South Africans are unemployed. Yet, studies are also increasingly finding that there are thousands of jobs available that have gone unfilled because of the skills gap. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), half the global labour force might need reskilling by 2025. Yet, South African firms are woefully ill-prepared for this reality.
In addition to fundamental changes in the traditional sphere of higher education – including new and innovative degrees, a cross-disciplinary focus and an injection of technology into the curriculum – there is a need for upskilling and reskilling.
Research from the WEF suggests that, to adapt to the 4IR, there needs to be a greater focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) alongside soft skills. More recently it was found that analytical thinking and creative thinking are the most important core skills in this shifting context.
This shift does not mean doom. According to findings from McKinsey, hundreds of millions of workers globally will probably need to switch occupations by 2030. However, this also means that there will be new jobs created. We need to reframe our thinking around the future world of work and respond accordingly.
As WEF managing director Saadia Zahidi phrased it, “we’re not necessarily looking at a negative future in terms of jobs, but what we are looking at is a major shift in terms of the set of skills within each job and the types of jobs that will exist in the future”.
This is a call to which we are certainly responding. There is a need for flexibility in higher education. We have discovered that institutions must be agile enough to respond to changing circumstances quickly. At the University of Johannesburg (UJ) we have introduced a number of short learning courses. In part, these are aimed at expanding the knowledge of our staff and students, but also at upskilling professions.
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In 2021, we introduced two free short courses: “Artificial Intelligence in the 4IR” and “African Insights”. Last year, we included another free online course called “Introduction to Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)”. We have also introduced a number of short learning programmes related to specific fields. In accounting, for example, we have introduced “Embracing 4IR: Upskilling Accountants for the 21st Century”.
This is but the beginning. There is a distinct gap, and developing more massive open online courses (Moocs) and microcredentials could be one solution to access challenges, funding constraints and skills gaps. UJ is also currently exploring the possibility of a digital university. This will exist as a twin of the brick-and-mortar university and will increase access and our scope. This digital campus will take shape over the next few years, drawing from our experiences under lockdown and benchmarking globally for best practices.
Elsewhere, we have introduced initiatives aimed specifically at practical upskilling and reskilling. For example, our TechnoLab is upskilling teachers with free robotics and coding workshops. This was piloted in 2021 and has seen great success. As these shifts demonstrate, we have realised that the future we are hurtling towards requires a fundamentally different skillset.
This requires a proactive approach. There are some broader interventions required, such as greater funding and access and improved training programmes, while institutions must partner with industry to develop skills aligned with their needs.
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In 2019, the World Bank found that the private sector could probably only profitably reskill about 25% of workers. It called for more government investment and public-private collaboration in order to lower costs and reach scale.
Moreover, it found that if the private sector collaborates to create economies of scale, it could collectively reskill 45% of at-risk workers. There is potential for the reskilling of up to 77% of at-risk workers through collaboration among different groups, with the assistance of governments playing an important part in this effort.
As the world around us changes, we are called to change alongside it. Traditional notions of education are being challenged, and it is through a revolution that we can respond and leverage the possibilities of the 4IR.
In South Africa, this will require buy-in from various stakeholders if we are to make a dent in the stats. Tracy Chapman’s 1988 lyrics, “Don’t you know They’re talking about a revolution?” ring true once again. DM