Work/em­ploy­ment re­think is needed to beat ma­chines

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION&ANALYSIS - Daniel Schwartzkopff Daniel Schwartzkopff is the co-founder of DataProphet.

THE FOURTH In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion will dra­mat­i­cally re­shape the world of work and force us to re­think our ap­proach to our ca­reers, our lives, and our as­pi­ra­tions. With a global mar­ket es­ti­mated to reach $70 bil­lion (R912bn) by 2020, ma­chine learn­ing is driv­ing fun­da­men­tal change in the way ev­ery in­dus­try op­er­ates.

Learn­ing al­go­rithms are al­ready pi­o­neer­ing ad­vances in cus­tomer ser­vice, man­u­fac­tur­ing, health­care, au­dit­ing, le­gal coun­sel, and in­sur­ance un­der­writ­ing, with more in­dus­tries to fol­low.

Old no­tions of job se­cu­rity have all but dis­ap­peared: the thought of work­ing for the same com­pany for 40 years un­til re­tire­ment is laugh­able. In 1965, cor­po­ra­tions re­mained in the S&P 500 In­dex for an av­er­age of 33 years; by 2012 this had al­ready shrunk to 18 years. With the rapid pace of de­vel­op­ment bankrupt­ing and dis­plac­ing large be­he­moths like Ko­dak and Block­buster, no one should be un­der the il­lu­sion that a com­pany is too big to fail.

In PwC’s lat­est re­port on the im­pact of au­to­ma­tion, up to 38 per­cent of jobs in the US are at risk, with Ger­many (35 per­cent) and the UK (30 per­cent) not far be­hind. And it’s not man­ual labour that is most in peril: ac­coun­tants, lawyers, call cen­tre agents, ma­chine op­er­a­tors, and in­sur­ance un­der­writ­ers are at or near the top of lists of jobs most likely to be­come re­dun­dant thanks to ma­chines.

In re­sponse, it is likely that the gov­ern­ments will start im­ple­ment­ing poli­cies to pro­tect an al­ready frag­ile job mar­ket. How­ever, the com­mer­cial ben­e­fits of au­to­ma­tion are vast and far-reach­ing. In an ex­am­ple re­cently cited by the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum, a Chi­nese fac­tory in Dong­guan City re­placed 90 per­cent of its work­force with ma­chines, lead­ing to an in­cred­i­ble 250 per­cent boost in pro­duc­tiv­ity, with de­fects re­duced by 80 per­cent.

Gov­ern­ments need to take a more for­ward-look­ing ap­proach and find in­no­va­tive ways of in­cen­tivis­ing and equip­ping peo­ple to ed­u­cate them­selves. Learn­ing the types of skills un­likely to be re­placed by ma­chines in the com­ing years is crit­i­cal – es­pe­cially here in Africa.

South Africa’s lat­est un­em­ploy­ment fig­ures paint a bleak pic­ture: the of­fi­cial rate is 27.7 per­cent, or 6.2 mil­lion peo­ple who want to work but can’t find em­ploy­ment. A closer look, how­ever, will re­veal that the vast ma­jor­ity of the un­em­ployed are with­out a ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion. Among grad­u­ates the un­em­ploy­ment rate is a mere 7.3 per­cent.

To help stim­u­late job cre­ation, gov­ern­ment and in­dus­try have worked hard at es­tab­lish­ing a busi­ness process out­sourc­ing in­dus­try as a key job cre­ator and eco­nomic driver. One in­dus­try body claims the sec­tor al­ready em­ploys more than 30 000 peo­ple, and aims to grow this to 80 000 by 2021. Con­sid­er­ing most of the out­sourced jobs are in call cen­tres and cus­tomer ser­vice, it is alarm­ing that so much ef­fort is be­ing put into in­dus­tries that are most at risk of au­to­ma­tion.

Across the con­ti­nent, ex­plo­sive pop­u­la­tion growth is ex­pected to bring a fur­ther 122 mil­lion peo­ple into the work­force by 2020. Due to short­com­ings in the con­ti­nent’s ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor, these work­ers are likely to be over­whelm­ingly un­skilled or semi-skilled. Ab­sorb­ing 122 mil­lion peo­ple into for­mal eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity will be para­mount to the con­ti­nent’s on-go­ing de­vel­op­ment and pros­per­ity.

We need an ur­gent change in how we ap­proach skills de­vel­op­ment and work.

Life­long learn­ing

Those wish­ing to fu­ture-proof their ca­reers should stop re­ly­ing on tra­di­tional no­tions of work. Many of the skills re­quired for the fu­ture – such as data science and ma­chine learn­ing – are not yet for­mally of­fered at univer­sity level, and even where they are the in­dus­try changes so quickly that by the time a stu­dent ex­its a four-year de­gree, much of their knowl­edge is al­ready out­dated. In re­sponse, we should all as­pire to a life­long ap­proach to learn­ing.

De­vel­op­ing skills in the Science, Tech­nol­ogy, En­gi­neer­ing and maths fields, as well as arts and hu­man­i­ties – where ma­chines will strug­gle with repli­cat­ing de­sign, cre­ation, em­pa­thy, and prob­lem-solv­ing thought – rep­re­sents work­ers’ best de­fence against au­to­ma­tion.

Many mod­ern tech com­pa­nies no longer look solely at aca­demic tran­scripts and qual­i­fi­ca­tions as the main bench­mark of your em­ploy­a­bil­ity. In­stead, prac­ti­cal tests are given that gauge a can­di­date’s ac­tual abil­ity to com­plete work-re­lated tasks and think cre­atively and lat­er­ally.

It is cer­tain that some jobs will be dis­rupted – even elim­i­nated – by au­to­ma­tion.

It’s high time we over­haul our ed­u­ca­tion and skills de­vel­op­ment sec­tor.


Daniel Schwartzkopff says jobs will be elim­i­nated by au­to­ma­tion.

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