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Gig economy trumpeted as SA’s solution to joblessness

Johannesburg, 26 Aug 2021
Read time 5min 50sec

As SA reels from high unemployment, analysts urge South Africans to tap into opportunities presented by the gig economy, as the sector helps develop new in-demand skills and provides job-seekers with global exposure.

Stats SA’s latest Labour Force Survey for the second quarter paints a grim picture of unemployment in the country – showing there were 7.8 million jobless South Africans in the second quarter, representing 34.4% of the population.

With SA’s unemployment rate now the highest in the world, analysts say with the gig economy − also known as the platform economy − unemployed citizens are able to quickly adapt to new technologies, and learn new emerging skills that increase their opportunities to actively participate in the ballooning digital economy.

Gig work can be defined as income-earning opportunities outside of traditional, long-term employer-employee relationships, typically conducted via an on-demand digital platform by independent contractors, online platform workers, contract firm workers, on-call workers and temporary employees. It includes skilled opportunities that require specific qualification, talent or ability.

The gig economy in SA is already assisting with unemployment in various industries, particularly in e-hailing, e-commerce, entertainment and online delivery services.

As the world of work undergoes dramatic changes, accelerated by the unprecedented consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has led to the rapidly-growing gig economy, which heavily relies on digital, creative, analytical, collaboration and relationship-building skills, among others.

According to an Investec report, “What is the gig economy and why is it growing?”, there are now 162 million gig workers in the US and European Union, and SA has 3.9 million giggers.

Dr Gillian Mooney, dean of academic development and support at the Independent Institute of Education, believes professional gig economy field specialists will be in high demand in SA, prompting the growth of outsourced skills, such as artificial intelligence, big data, internet of things, robotics and encryption.

Dr Gillian Mooney, dean of academic development and support at the Independent Institute of Education.
Dr Gillian Mooney, dean of academic development and support at the Independent Institute of Education.

“In the gig economy, specialisation is key and generalist skills are non-negotiable,” says Mooney.

“You have to be very clear about what it is that you offer, and you have to ensure you are the very best you can be in that field, combined with a healthy dose of being able to run the logistics of your consulting business.”

According to Mooney, there are a number of exciting new courses being offered in growth fields, which will enhance a candidate’s chances of entering the gig economy. These include courses in mobile application and web development, data analytics and brand leadership.

According to the Harambee Mapping of Digital and ICT Roles and Demand for South Africa Survey, digital skills and services have the potential to pave the way for over 66 000 jobs in SA’s ICT sector by the end of 2021.

Locals must think global

During the BXC XCITE21 virtual event yesterday, human resources experts that engaged in a discussion titled “Future of work re-imagined” were vocal on how the gig economy may be SA’s unemployment saving grace.

The panellists agreed that key elements such as government policy, a shift in the current education system and digital skills development will play a crucial role in fuelling the gig economy and preparing SA’s workforce for Industry 5.0.

For Emma El-Karout, founder of online HR collaboration platform One Circle, a gig economy allows graduates and job-seekers to expand their thinking beyond local opportunities, and search for global opportunities, as they can work remotely.

“75% of young people in SA’s economy are unemployed – these are painful stats and we need to democratise access to learning because we are seeing a lot of companies that hire trainees and graduates to train, upskill and develop them, but then they’re back into a market that has no jobs and opportunities for them.

“When we talk of job creation, we often think about job creation within the context of SA when, in fact, opportunities may be available elsewhere in the world – and the platform economy enables youth to work remotely on projects anywhere in the world while they get paid in foreign currency.”

SA’s entire education system and approach to skills development has to change, and government needs to re-purpose education to fit into the future of work model, by enabling access to the right tools, skills and opportunities for youth to take full advantage of the gig economy, El-Karout stressed.

“Businesses are moving towards a model where they will have a blended workforce of full-timers, part-timers, freelancers, contractors, etc − so it’s important for youth to build the expertise they may require to be able to work on a project independently, or as part of a virtual team. There are also a lot of things that need to be improved on the education side – we need to prepare the youth digitally to work virtually and remotely instead of educating them on traditional models of education.”

Zanele Njapha, ‘unlearning’ expert and independent transitions facilitator, sees the rapid expansion of the gig economy not only as a response to the pandemic, but a reflection of a shift in working models, which corporates must embrace.

“The gig economy makes people realise they can mould their work to fit into their lives, instead of their lives revolving around their work. So the model of work is calling us to ask different questions about ourselves and our ability to execute certain tasks.”

Nkuli Mbundu, regional sales manager at business intelligence firm MicroStrategy, said government needs to take a stronger role in ensuring opportunities are available for all South Africans to participate in the gig economy.

He pointed out that policymakers must ensure there is a bridging of the digital divide by building infrastructure that enables future working models and ensures access to emerging technologies.

“The world as we know it is no longer the same; we live in a platform economy and in an era of exponential growth which requires a great deal of adaptability for the work that employees are expected to deliver.

“Government has to invest in the right technologies and infrastructure – they have to create policies that enable businesses to operate efficiently through the right tools and to effect capacity in the workforce.

“We are seeing a drop in productivity because of a lack of basic services such as infrastructure, connectivity and a stable power supply, so we need government’s commitment in order for business to be able to deliver services in the gig economy.”

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