Fourth Industrial Revolution - Part Two (4IR and Jobs)

November 11, 2019

In part 1 of this blog, we briefly introduced the fourth industrial revolution within the context of the preceding revolutions, unpacked exactly what the 4IR is and touched on some of the challenges faced by South Africa with regard to the changes that the 4IR will bring. In part 2, we focus specifically on jobs and skills in light of the technological changes we are experiencing. The information in this blog is largely sourced from the Accenture Consulting report titled ‘Creating South Africa’s Future Workforce’. 

A common concern raised when one talks about the 4IR is “the machines are going to take our jobs”. And yes, this is true for a number of professions. Accenture Consulting notes that 35% of South African jobs are at risk of total automation as machines can perform 75% of the required activities. As technology progresses through advancements in areas such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, jobs that comprise of more machine-like activities (routine work, transactions and manual work) are at greater risk than those with greater human-like activities (analytical, leadership, social intelligence and creativity). Essentially, the more repetitive and predictable tasks that a job requires, the more the tasks can be replicated by machines. As such, occupations at highest risk of automation are “production, office administration, farming, food preparation, construction, mining, transportation, installation and maintenance”. Jobs that are harder to automate include tasks such as “influencing people, teaching people, programming, real-time discussions, advising people, negotiating and cooperating with co-workers”. 

Essentially, we need to reduce the potential threat of jobs being replaced by machines and leverage opportunities that are presented to create new jobs via machine-human collaboration. In order to achieve this, we need to learn new skills to better collaborate with technology in order to enhance their productivity and ingenuity. As Accenture puts it, “we need to learn to run with the machine”. This statement, as futuristic as it sounds, is based on research that shows that artificial intelligence does, in fact, have the potential to boost labour productivity by 40% by 2035. Essentially, we need to focus on a shift towards more human-centred skills and increase the pace at which we embrace digital technologies. However, the same research indicates that South Africa, at our current pace of learning, will transition towards the required skills at a slower pace than the rest of the developing world. Ultimately, we need to double the pace at which we acquire skills or face the imminent threat of losing 5.7 million jobs to automation.

“By embedding AI and making it a factor of production, this research indicates that South Africa could potentially double the size of its economy five years earlier”

So, what can government, industry, organised labour and educational institutions do to ensure that we start to rapidly increase the pace of learning and avoid the massive job losses that are predicated? The role of government is primarily around the creation of a conducive policy and regulatory environment while also providing access to infrastructure, connectivity, skills and incentives. Industry, on the other hand, needs to invest in technology to enhance efficiencies and drive re-skilling initiatives, while industry associations need to continue to drive research and discussions around digital advancements. Educational institutions need to pioneer new systems to allow for learning across the various stakeholders (between industry, government, NGOs, research institutions, etc) while organised labour needs to accept the potential that digital technologies provide and assist prepare the next generation.

So, next time someone says “the machines are going to take our jobs”, we suggest responding by saying “not if we learn to run with the machine”.

Paul Jones

Paul Jones