Job Summit essentials: Continuous Learning to curb unemployment

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Today, the Job Summit officially kicked-off in Gauteng. Convened by the National Economic Development Labour Council, its mission is to combat the country’s 27.2% unemployment rate by examining contributing factors.

A big concern will be kick-starting the recovery of a persistently weak economy that’s had significant implications for the first and second quarters of 2018. 69 000 jobs have been lost in this period, although June 2018 did show 0.1% year-on-year growth from June 2017.

The summit, along with Ramaphosa’s recent announcement of an economic ‘rescue’ package, should map a clearer path to how private and public sectors can co-operate to turn a drastic situation around. Education will, no doubt, be on the agenda, and, while continuous learning won’t enable mass employment, it could play a pivotal in future-proofing the existing workplace.

Ramping up economic recovery is a process, which will also require a commitment to job retention, policy overhauls and the implementation of enablers for sustained SME growth. In terms of job retention, the Jobs Summit needs to examine how to future-proof our workforce against irrelevance – named an even greater threat to humanity than exploitation by Yuval Noah Harari.

Currently, just 23.8% of 1041 surveyed South Africans feel confident that their skills will withstand the ten year test, according to the MasterStart 2018 South African Workforce Barometer. Additionally, over 80% find the job environment tougher now than it was ten years ago.

Why? Most respondents cited the pressurised economy, corruption, increased competition, fewer opportunities and a larger population, retrenchment, demographics, qualifications and experience as causative factors. Additionally, rapid change was named as a big catalyst for concern, with automation and tech identified as jeopardising jobs.

But our workforce wasn’t as worried about automation, AI and robotic processing automation as it was about factors like age and lack of skills.

For young people, especially, lack of skills was seen as the biggest barrier. And that’s where continuous learning was identified as an essential solve.

Continuous learning as an antidote to unemployment:

Recently, the University of Stellenbosch Business School’s Dr Rose Phillips presented research that found 35% (close to 5.7 million) jobs in SA are at risk of ‘total digital automation’ in just seven years. Consider the impact of that on top of an already fragile economy and some of the world’s worst unemployment statistics, and it’s obvious we need to act decisively and collectively. On the flip-side, Phillips believes that if SA can double the speed our workforce acquires the skills required to collaborate with machines, we could save a million jobs.

Cue continuous learning. By making access to ongoing learning accessible and affordable in ‘snackable’ sized pieces, we can upskill people with the requisite skills to survive and thrive in the era of Industry 4.0. It’ll be up to private and public stakeholders to not only make learning material relevant and relatable, but also available. That means looking at new ways to present tertiary education options.

It also means working with corporates to ensure they’re continuously re-skilling their employees to promote them or train them for other available positions. This is one of the key ways to curb retrenchments – an essential part of Ramaphosa’s rescue plan. A big part of this will be upskilling humans to share their workload with robots – something fewer than 20% of respondents in the MasterStart survey said they’re currently comfortable doing.

More positively, 95% of respondents believed lifelong learning would help them remain relevant and 58% were planning to study online in the future. This shows a proactive appetite for learning amongst our workforce. The onus then falls on education stakeholders to have the knowledge and creativity necessary to predict which skills will command the greatest demand going forwards – skills like influencing and advising people, teaching and programming – and ensuring these digital capabilities are imparted through learning materials designed to efficiently bridge capability gaps.

The author Katharina Scholtz  is the Chief Learning Officer at MasterStart.