SA employees jittery over 4IR impact on job security

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 18 Jul 2023

The South African workforce in the industrial manufacturing sector has expressed fears that the adoption of fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technologies is threatening their jobs.

This is according to a report by consultancy firm PwC – “Building avenues for tomorrow’s industrial manufacturing workforce, today”.

PwC notes South Africa has positioned itself as a prime manufacturing hub on the African continent, with its industrial manufacturing industry serving as a crucial multiplier of economic growth, an engine of development and a significant contributor to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

In 2022, it notes, the sector contributed 11.4% towards the overall GDP (R3 trillion). Today, around 1.5 million people work in industrial manufacturing, and are witnessing progression at a rapid pace within the sector, it adds.

“New technologies are changing the face of manufacturing. Factories are becoming increasingly connected, as machines talk to one another and to humans, and automation reaches new milestones, with robots becoming more independent,” says Vinesh Maharaj, PwC South Africa’s smart manufacturing lead.

“This has understandably left groups of employees jittery over 4IR’s impact on job security and changing roles.”

Pivoting on emerging tech

The consultancy firm points put that exciting disruptions within the sector are causing business leaders to pivot due to rapid innovation of new digital technologies, such as the internet of things, automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“What is being manufactured and how it is produced is also changing; this is evident in the automotive manufacturing industry, which is currently seeing a global shift to vehicles that do not produce emissions.

“South Africa is a prime manufacturing hub and these tech-enabled innovations will efficiently allow various sub-sectors in the industry to meet the growing demands of the country’s ever-evolving economy faster and smarter,” says PwC.

However, it states the ongoing industrial revolution and technological evolution in the industry has given rise to contending thoughts on their impact on the future of work and what this means for the workforce.

As organisations in the industrial manufacturing industry evolve, PwC urges it is pertinent that they consider how the different changes and trends are impacting their workforce; these include sustainability and digital trends, which are shaping the future of work in the industrial manufacturing industry.

It notes the 4IR in manufacturing is often associated with robots, smart machines and automation, which will result in widespread unemployment.

In South Africa, it says, 72% of workers are concerned that automation is threatening many jobs. The figure is based on responses of 2 022 workforce respondents from Africa (South Africa, Algeria, Kenya, Morocco and Nigeria) who participated in PwC’s 2023 Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey.

“While it is expected there will be a decline of repetitive tasks for assembly and factory workers, material handlers and many other roles, the decline will be counterbalanced by an increase in new, often formal, wage jobs being created, especially in the service sectors, at a faster rate, as well as earnings improvements in the informal sector,” says Maharaj.

This is supported by a 2023 World Economic Forum report, which asserts that technology adoption will remain a key driver of business transformation in the next five years.

“By creating a digital transformation journey through the use of a variety of applications and technologies, this will empower, retain and attract the workforce. The effective implementation of this is likely to increase efficiency, decrease cost, improve customer experience and facilitate a company’s growth,” says Marthle du Plessis, PwC Africa workforce of the future platform leader.

Du Plessis emphasises that negatively-impacted staff need to be given the first opportunity to be trained into occupying the new jobs created. “This will require three- to five-year planning horizons through a robust strategic workforce planning strategy.”

Dimming the lights

According to PwC, although “lights-out” (a manufacturing methodology in which manufacturing is fully automated and requires no human presence so that the lights and even ventilation can be shut off) is not yet a reality, industrial manufacturing companies need to keep this at the top of mind to re-skill and upskill their workforce to be prepared for the changes ahead.

“While lights-out might put tens of thousands of factory workers out of work, it will also create a demand for a new type of workforce that designs and develops the necessary hardware and software for these systems.

“This will add skilled workers to the talent shortage in the skilled workforce, especially in data analytics,” says the consultancy firm.

It adds that technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality are becoming popular tools in workforce training and development by enabling workers to simulate real-world scenarios in a controlled environment, providing them with hands-on experience.

This allows the workforce and the manufacturing industry to leverage and benefit from the opportunities brought by the 4IR, it explains.

It believes the upskilling of employees through this digital journey would create value for the industrial manufacturing industry.

“It must be stated that the transition of the workforce to enable the development of new skills and career pathways must be done in a responsible way with proper planning. Tools need to be used to determine which and how many jobs will become redundant, as well as which or how many will be created.”