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Welcome to the brave new world of work, we’re in a race to skills obsolescence


Jon Foster-Pedley is chair of the British Chamber of Business in southern Africa. He is also dean and director of Henley Business School Africa. It is part of the University of Reading UK, originally an extension college of Oxford University, renowned for its leadership in climate science, finance, property management and executive education, and one of the most international universities in Britain. Henley is committed to transformation and holds a Level 2 B-BBEE ranking. If you would like to find out how you could unlock your future with Henley Africa, go to

It has been said that 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2035 haven’t even been invented yet. The change is all pervasive and unstoppable, but our education system is stuck on serving a derivative economy that had its heyday 60 years ago.

South Africa is caught in a vice of two crises: a skills shortage and an economy that is deindustrialising and dying. 

The situation is not helped by the fact that only 6% of our school starters get a university degree within six years of leaving school – if they even get past the doors: in 2023 there was only room for 210,000 matriculants of the 897,775 who passed.

The question is often asked: are they even fit for further learning? 

The Class of 2023 recorded an 82.9% pass rate, the highest since the advent of democracy 30 years ago, but only 40.9% of them (282,894) qualified for university entrance. 

Perhaps the question should be, are our universities fit to teach them?

We live in a world that is dramatically different from the one for which these institutions of higher learning seem to believe they are preparing their students. 

There is real concern about the shelf life of qualifications.

Traditionally, qualifications took 15 to 20 years for those skills learnt at university to become obsolete – today, that has perhaps been cut to between two and five years. 

The World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report 2023 says that 44% of workers’ skills will be disrupted in the next five years. We are in a race to obsolescence.

Knowledge and skills are only part of the answer; more essentially, we need cognitive development that leads to a sophistication of thinking, managing and doing. And that is harder to teach and learn, which is why quality of education is critical to success. 

It’s no good having a weak primary education sector and a few strong universities. The whole system needs to work if South Africa is to work.

We can see this in our country’s economic performance. Once a beacon of industrialisation for the continent (albeit based on deep inequality), South Africa has been steadily deindustrialising while sadly retaining its inequalities.

All this while countries that were once – almost incredibly – economically subordinate to us have radically diversified their economies. 

Vietnam, Finland, Korea and Singapore have made education at the heart of their successes, which has created the necessary skill sets vital for a transition to an agile, diversified knowledge-based economy, unlike ours which remains stuck on an increasingly superannuated and shrinking commodities sector.

South Africa carries the cross of unemployment, which at 33% (officially) towards the end of last year, is the highest in the world according to the World Bank, but it is the time bomb of youth unemployment that could truly crucify our country and its aspirations to be the leading economy and society in Africa.

Of those who do have work, very few have degrees and are trapped in low- to mid-level jobs. But they are the ones who offer us the key to our salvation.

While there is an essential focus on young students, arguably there is a blind spot in unlocking the potential in the very people who can make an immediate difference where they work and while they work. 

It is this invisible cohort of the underqualified middle, who had no chance to go to university, that keeps the economy turning and which needs to be taught how to lead and how to leverage their hard-won experience. 

The school leavers can learn the technical skills, but the experienced workers need to be taught how to manage them to succeed in complex work situations.

In a world of increasing Vuca (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) or Rupt (Rapid, Unpredictable, Paradoxical, Tangled) we need to develop degree programmes that enhance the ability to think, which is a skill that has come into even sharper importance with the advent of fake news and artificial intelligence.

We can’t build economies on the backs of accountants and lawyers – or doctors for that matter. We need engineers in all the different disciplines to build and develop the new systems, and we need real managers to lead them and build successful businesses.

Great entrepreneurs

And as much as we need great managers and business executives, we need great entrepreneurs – and we have many of them right under our noses. 

A third of the South African respondents to a Henley White Paper on the subject admitted they are already side hustling. And far from harming their main job, they are overwhelmingly loyal and even more hardworking than their peers who do not do this. They also bring new skills into their primary work.

There is a far higher potential for businesses like these to succeed, as opposed to first-time entrepreneurs, and yet we continue to focus on the neophyte – fostering youth entrepreneurism and helping them to draw up business plans and access funding, only for them to fail because they have no experience in running a business.

Side hustling is a real entrepreneurial incubator for viable micro-enterprises that can grow and create jobs as they scale, and an exit pipeline for older managers who can then be replaced by younger managers in the organisation, creating a much-needed dynamism and agility without the attendant risk of losing institutional knowledge.

We need to return to the basics of education in the workplace. 

Ever since the days of Hippocrates, the medical profession has used a system of see one, do one, teach one – institutionalised workplace learning and mentorships that pass on knowledge in real-time and real-life immersive situations.

We need to rediscover and expand the odyssey from apprentice to journeyman and then master of the craft in all sectors, not just the construction site.

In training managers, we must not lose sight of their personal development as it all starts with “know thyself”. We need to create leaders who instinctively understand they might not have the answer and seek advice. 

It’s time to debunk the HIPPO – the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. There’s an intellectual bravery in seeking out the most expertise in the room, regardless of rank.

The old African adage tells us if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.

We are a diverse society, a nation forged from the amalgam of difference, and our business leaders need to unlock our potential by understanding diversity and harnessing it.

The old South Africa’s wealth was built on an extractive economy with a few highly skilled people and a deliberately undereducated mass population that provided mostly labour.

The new South Africa needs to give masses of people the ability to create a modern prosperity by working at higher levels of sophistication and complexity, and only mass education and workplace learning can provide that.

We don’t have any option: 25% of the jobs that we have now are destined to go the way of the blacksmith and the lamplighter in the next five years; some say that 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2035 haven’t even been invented yet. 

The change is all pervasive and unstoppable, but our education system is stuck on serving a derivative economy that had its heyday 60 years ago.

This is the brave new world, one where we learn, unlearn and relearn. 

If we can develop leaders through a pathway of being excellent managers who can successfully navigate this, then we truly will have laid the foundations to create a better life for all. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Andre Swart says:

    Since knowledge resides in the cloud why do we send our learners to square brick buildings called schools?

    The quality of learning obtained in factory type schools is a not worth 10% of the money spent on it.

    Unless each learner can learn at his /her own tempo and excell according to his/her individual ability, we waste talent, time and money.

    Information era employment require self motivated individuals with the ability to LEARN and ADAPT rapidly!

    Keep learners on home based virtual education via the internet and demolish the outdated factory type schools.

    • James Webster says:

      Because having access to knowledge is not the same as learning how to use knowledge, how to think, how to analyse, how to sift data for patterns and meaning, how to extrapolate, how to identify fact and how to discard fiction. Consider, as an example, how many loony-toon conspiracy theories and perverse ideologies permeate that cloud and contaminate its content, from psycho-anti-vax tropes to woke Marxist (un)critical theories of race and gender. Learners need to know how to glean the wheat from the chaff, that’s what schools are supposed to be teaching ( we won’t even mention basics, such as reading and writing which are the only way they can access the information in that cloud ).

  • William Kelly says:

    And who will they manage?

    • Rod H MacLeod says:

      That is the point – everyone wants to be a chief with a BMW or Range Rover in the garage – but where are the Indians? You don’t need a uni degree to be a bricklayer. And bricklayers are important – look at the article on USA skills shortages. We lost decades of economic capability when the technicians were scrambled into “universities”, when a paper qualification was the imagined highway to wealth and prosperity. That move was on the same trajectory as Zimbabwe opening the money printing press to make the economy rich – clouds in your pocket.

      • Gavin Knox says:

        Fact Rod…

      • Andre Swart says:

        Handwork skills eg. bricklaying, can be learnt from online simulations and practised in your own back yard.

        Constructive, worthwhile, knowledge is in the cloud … and in the environment … in travel … but NOT in schools.

        School is the market place for disease, bad peer influence and brainwashing with ‘woke’ propaganda from the secular state.

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    With all the loadshedding, are you sure that ‘lamplighter’ isn’t a viable career path?


  • District Six says:

    I hear you. It’s about the economy. The key difference between SA and the four specific countries you mentioned – Vietnam, Finland, Korea and Singapore, is that SA has a massive poverty problem. A hungry child cannot learn. Therefore, social context and location are indicators of life-long success. That’s the elephant in the room we need to deal with. It’s not just our schooling system; the majority of children cannot succeed without supportive family contexts.

  • James Webster says:

    I always find the use of African adages laughable, African culture is so big on pretentious aphorisms and so weak on applying them. However, I think the advent of usable AI is going to emphasise a number of the issues highlighted in this article. It’s worth noting that the term generative AI is something of a misnomer, it would be more apropos to call it regurgitative AI. AI “learns” from patterns in the data fed to it, what people tend to ignore when considering this, is that AI can only apply pre-existing patterns, it can not create new ones, so far, only humans can do that. This means that human ingenuity, creativity and innovation will become even more pivotal as the use of AI progresses, making the nurturing and mentoring of the human mind more necessary than in the past.

  • Peter Smith says:

    I think you should look at India for your model. The have made huge economic progress based on good education and entrepreneurship. Education start at school level and you cannot fix 12 years of poor school education in 3 years at uni. You seem to focus only on university qualifications. An economy requires a mix – you also need miners, construction workers, nurses, welders, fitters and turners, boiler makers, mechanics, machinists. Currently there is a global shortage of tradesman- electricians, plumbers and even truck drivers. The average age of fitters and turners is 62 years.
    The ANC has shot itself in the foot by focusing only on tertiary education. Further, they dropped the standards so a black accountant only need a 30% pass rate and the rest needs 76%. Through BEE, Employers are forced to appoint these black graduates at twice the salary of a better white graduate. The young white graduates are leaving the country. And NFSAS is a mess, with many graduates choosing to study BA language or politics while the country needs engineers and technicians.
    I believe your statement regarding skills obsolescence is incorrect as most professions have already been practicing continuous learning for more than 2 decades. There is an ongoing debate about what value traditional educational institutions add. History universities dominated R&D but now most R&D is done by the private sector.

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