Tech can tackle unemployment: here is how to achieve it

Johannesburg, 30 Jul 2021
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Hope Lukoto, Chief Human Resources Officer, BCX
Hope Lukoto, Chief Human Resources Officer, BCX

Over 20 million people under 35 are unemployed, and many millions lack access to education and training. This is a sobering and disheartening thought. But let's tie that to a seemingly unrelated statistic. A McKinsey study from 2017 projected that by 2030, as much as 14% of the global workforce would have to change jobs or acquire new skills due to emerging technologies.

One could say the world has an emerging unemployment problem. South Africa is just ahead of the curve.

The statement is a good launching point because it lays waste to a common misconception: the route to more employment is to create more of the same jobs. That might have been true 20 or 30 years ago, but it is not the case anymore.

"Digital is driving a transformation that will change the nature of how, where, when and even why we work, live and play," says Hope Lukoto, BCX's Chief Human Resources Officer. "We can't grow the economy post-pandemic if we ignore the seismic and fundamental change of how the very nature of job roles has changed and will continue to change. Overcoming the skills gap and unemployment crisis through digital transformation will require a re-imagining of how we perceive job roles, job families and career streams, as well as revisiting how we impart skills and requirements for employees."

Employment for tomorrow's job

We could kill two birds with one stone. The technology industry can help overcome unemployment and create a workforce that is 4IR competent, putting South Africa at the forefront of the revolution.

"The tech-driven world can create more jobs. We can rekindle economic transformation if we focus on emergent technologies and skills. Emerging technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence and automation play an increasing function in everything. It's not a question of whether we are ready or not. We have to accelerate to create and increase opportunity."

Lukoto points out several areas where we can cultivate change, starting in our offices: "We should focus on the outputs of employees and the requirements of a particular project or a job. We will find there is much we can work with to build and create new and evolving criteria and responsibilities."

Fewer careers sustain themselves on just a qualification and a job. Those who embrace learning and professional improvement as a way of life will thrive tomorrow. They already thrive today, but the culture should expand from achievers to everyone.

"If we look away from job roles and job families, and narrow our focus on roles, requirements and responsibility, we will open ourselves to a much wider future with increased opportunities," adds Lukoto, noting that we must also promote design thinking as a general skill. "If you take my company as an example, after 25 years we still have innovation as our driving core. We must keep re-thinking, re-imagining and re-shaping what we know into solutions for our employees and customers. We must focus on problem-solving and critical thinking. Those are the skills that will allow us to create, build and innovate, being able to solve problems that affect us on a daily basis."

Stop fearing automation

Another immediate win is to address automation. Many still believe that automation will inevitably reduce employment opportunities. But it's a fallacy often projected from professional insecurities – many people resist automation because they fear for their jobs, even when automation poses no risk to them.

"We have to dispel the fear that skills will be displaced by automation. We have to look at it differently. Our essential human skills are not going to be taken away, but they will be enhanced. Adopting robotics and automation allows us to think differently about our careers and our skills."

Looking specifically at the skills of the youth, Lukoto says we need more emphasis on creating developers and equipping them with problem-solving skills. Providing appropriate platforms and spaces, including exposure to roles and job streams they might not consider, can encourage better skills development. South Africa's numerous successful hackathons prove this, priming many young enthusiasts for greater professional and entrepreneurial possibilities.

Most often, it's not learners' efforts but the entrenched atavistic cultures of companies that let them down. But as the computer scientist Alan Kay once remarked, technology is anything that wasn't around when you were born.

"We need to take the adjacent skills people have and see what we can build on so they remain relevant. This will open up room for a younger generation to play with technology, to look at job streams they might not have thought of. Take the discipline of data science, for example. That can be applied throughout the value chain in the corporate sector."

South Africa has enormous potential. If we can develop that potential through exposure to skills and careers, introduce appropriate technologies, and encourage cultural shifts towards collaboration, lifelong learning and output-based performance, we have a real opportunity to not only reverse unemployment, but also position SA as a leading 21st century nation.

"It can be done. The gap can be overcome, but we have to focus on skills and capabilities that are going to drive digital transformation. We must accelerate digital transformation, we must get comfortable with technology and integrate it into our lives and the economy. That integration is a necessary reality of what South Africa needs if we are to truly unlock and embrace the potential of the fourth industrial revolution to transform our country and make it a better, stronger and more equitable place for all to work, live and grow.

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