The Imperative to Re-skill in the Aftermath of the World Economic Forum Meetings

Jobs of Tomorrow by Paresh Soni Associate Director: MANCOSA Graduate School of Business

In 2017 there has been a flurry of World Economic Forum (WEF) gatherings, including the annual global summit in Davos, Switzerland, and the regional meetings in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The African convention took place in Durban, South Africa, recently. A critical issue which took centre stage in all of these gatherings was the subject of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR or Industry 4.0).

The major outcomes of deliberations at these WEF meetings have surreptitiously informed us that we are on the cusp of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. Developments in genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing and biotechnology, to name just a few, are all building on and amplifying one another. This will lay the foundation for a revolution more comprehensive and all-encompassing than anything we have ever seen. Smart systems—homes, factories, farms, grids or cities—will help tackle problems ranging from supply chain management to climate change. The rise of the sharing economy will allow people to monetise everything from their empty house to their car.

The FIR is a revolution without boundaries spreading across the world with inconceivable velocity. It is a time of extraordinary change. In this industrial revolution, every individual, business, industry and government is being impacted by breakthroughs in computing power, connectivity, artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology and other innovative technologies.

The exponential pace of this revolution exceeds our ability to grasp the magnitude of change. Similar to Sci-Fi movies which generally portray and foretell a machine age far from our present comprehension, the fourth industrial revolution explores some bizarre yet not too distant ideas such as computers displaying emotion, genetically engineered human species, a humanity in permanent vacation. At the same time, leading scientists express concern over the existential threat from artificial intelligence.

It is expected that by 2020 more people will have mobile phones than have electricity or running water in their homes or villages. Cars are becoming intelligent robots on wheels. Factories are automating manufacturing, displacing tens of thousands of workers.

While the impending change holds great promise, the patterns of consumption, production and employment created by it also pose major challenges requiring proactive adaptation by corporations, governments and individuals. Concurrent to the technological revolution are a set of broader socio-economic, geopolitical and demographic drivers of change, each interacting in multiple directions and intensifying one another.

As entire industries adjust, most occupations are undergoing a fundamental transformation. While some jobs are threatened by redundancy and others grow rapidly, existing jobs are also going through a change in the skill sets required to do them. The debate on these transformations is often polarised between those who foresee limitless new opportunities and those that foresee massive dislocation of jobs. In fact, the reality is highly specific to the industry, region and occupation in question as well as the ability of various stakeholders to manage change.

Overall, there is a modestly positive outlook for employment across most industries, with jobs growth expected in several sectors. However, it is also clear that this need for more talent in certain job categories is accompanied by high skills instability across all job categories. Combined together, net job growth and skills instability result in most businesses currently facing major recruitment challenges and talent shortages, a pattern already evident in the results and set to get worse over the next five years.

Indeed, the world of work is in a state of flux, which is causing considerable anxiety—and with good reason. There is growing polarisation of labour-market opportunities between high- and low-skill jobs, unemployment and underemployment especially among young people, stagnating incomes for a large proportion of households, and income inequality.
The development of automation enabled by technologies including robotics and artificial intelligence brings the promise of higher productivity (and with productivity, economic growth), increased efficiencies, safety, and convenience. But these technologies also raise difficult questions about the broader impact of automation on jobs, skills, wages, and the nature of work itself.

The question, then, is how those organisations involved in education and skills training react to these new and disruptive developments. To prevent a worst-case scenario—technological change accompanied by talent shortages, mass unemployment and growing inequality—re-skilling and up-skilling of today’s workers will be critical. While much has been said about the need for reform in basic education, it is simply not possible to weather the current technological revolution by waiting for the next generation’s workforce to become better prepared.
Instead it is critical that businesses play an intrinsic role in the training of current workforces through re-training, and that individuals take a proactive approach to their own lifelong learning and that governments create the enabling environment, rapidly and creatively, to assist these efforts. In particular, business collaboration within industries to create larger pools of skilled talent will become indispensable, as will multi-sector skilling partnerships that leverage the very same collaborative models that underpin many of the technology-driven business changes underway today.

The rapidly changing technological environment is changing almost all facets of life, especially as we know it today. Developing technologies are changing the way we work, the jobs humans are required for, and consequently the skills required to do them.
We have the rare fortune to be witnessing a massive turning point in the history of humanity, the so called “second machine age” or “fourth industrial revolution”. Are we conscious of the impending challenges, or are we marching forward, blissfully unaware of how today’s decisions are already shaping the future?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution urges us to think creatively about the manufacturing process, value chain, distribution and customer service processes. In the meanwhile, the future of education emphasises the immense need to look beyond these areas and strategically utilize the “Internet of Things” to prepare the coming workforce for the challenges ahead.

There seems to be an increasing disconnect between the content-driven education model largely developed in the nineteenth century and today’s skills-based world of work. Given the rapidly changing nature of work, it is practically impossible to predict the exact hard skills employers will require in the future.

But there can be no doubt that a greater focus on 21st century skills – transferable soft skills that can be utilised across a wide range of industries – will bolster the work-seeker’s opportunities.

Clearly, the sooner we start to be realistic about the global disruptive changes, the sooner we can move to address these new challenges. And in the end, those who will be most suited to face these obstacles presented by an uncertain future will be those who are most ready to move with the times.

The imperative to constantly re-skill oneself in a lifelong journey of education is the most plausible response.