How Automation in Africa Will Affect the Skills Needs of Employers

By Naomi Simiyu and Audrey Cheng

Most children entering primary school right now will work in jobs that don’t exist today. According to the World Economic Forum this applies to 65% of all children entering primary school worldwide. The situation is even more dire in Africa where 80% of people between ages 20 and 30 will work in positions that do not exist today. African economies can adapt by focusing on lifelong learning in technical, cognitive and social/behavioural skills that youth need for a technologically advanced world—now and for the future.

An Increasingly Automated Africa

It is estimated that more than 75% of jobs in developing countries are susceptible to automation in comparison to 55% of OECD countries, which are majority developed economies. The exact number of jobs that are under threat in Africa is difficult to determine due to slow technological adoption. What is certain is that labour-intensive sectors of agriculture and the service industry are the most vulnerable to automation. These jobs involve low skilled tasks such as those found in agriculture. Already in the U.S., agrotechnology is replacing everything from driving tractors to milking cows and soon fruit picking may also be replaced. All of these tasks were completed manually up until the last couple of decades.

High-skill roles are also falling prey to automation such as tellers, numerical clerks, business agents, and sales and purchasing agents. In Kenya, the banking sector has already seen teller job losses due to automation.

Opportunities in an Automated Africa

Although it will inevitably contribute to job losses, technology has led to the creation of new opportunities. Africa has seen the introduction of 56 e-riding shared services between 2015-2016 creating income generating opportunities for car owners through Uber and Little Cab, disrupting the taxi industry. Other sharing economy platforms like Airbnb have benefited homeowners and travelers, while Lynk connects various service providers like plumbers, electricians and DJs with clients. This could lead to 536,000 additional full-time jobs and a US$3bn increase in GDP in Kenya, 861,000 jobs and US$20bn in South Africa, and 1.9 million jobs and US$20bn additional GDP in Nigeria
. However, such changes are only beneficial to those with the skills and competencies demanded in such sectors.

In the future, there will be a greater demand of highly skilled labour that only currently makes up 6% of the labour market in Sub Saharan Africa in comparison to the global average of 24%.

Skills of the Future: Digital, Soft and Cognitive

According to a Rockefeller Foundation study, the ICT sector in Kenya is the “most promising source of quality youth employment”. It has already increased jobs by 18.4% in Kenya, 26% in South Africa and 6.7% in Ghana. South Africa alone has a current shortage of 200,000 to 700,000 Information and Communication Technology (ICT) professionals in software development, business intelligence, business process outsourcing, data analytics and more.

But technical skills are not enough. A Linkedin survey found that 59% of US employers believed that soft skills like communication and teamwork are harder to find than technical skills. The World Economic Forum predicts that cognitive skills – problem solving, creativity, and critical thinking – will be the top 3 skills demanded in the workplace in 2020.

Technology will replace routine jobs or change the nature of day-to-day tasks leading to a higher value for roles that are not easily replicated by machines such as hairdressers, beauticians, hotel and restaurant managers. The least vulnerable workers are those that require a combination of technical and social/behavioural skills. Such jobs are found in unpredictable environments that require more human interaction and include social psychologists, chief executives, supervisors in certain trades, firefighters and so on.

How do governments and schools adapt to technological trends that continue to change?

Governments and schools need to prioritize holistic learning that combines technical skills with soft skills and cognitive skills training to allow workers to navigate a shifting digital workplace. The demand for software programming, which is becoming the new literacy, is increasing outside of the technology sector due to its versatility in building cognitive skills like complex problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity. In the future, job growth will take place more extensively outside of the ICT industry in roles that cannot be fully or partially automated. However, digital technologies will continue to drive growth in all sectors and ICT skills such as programming will be a primary skill for all.

Finally, there needs to be a multi-stakeholder investment that involves government, education providers, NGO’s and the private sector. African governments and training providers need to incorporate skills training at all levels of education and invest in market-driven skills training institutions. It is no surprise that Singapore, a top education performer, invests in skills training at all levels (included lifelong learning) and its education policy focuses on reskilling through credits and additional subsidies to its citizens.

Looking Forward

By 2020, there could be a global shortage of 40 million high skilled workers unless adequate training and education is provided. Education providers such as Moringa School and Africa Leadership University that establish linkages with employers offer a blueprint on skills training in technical, social and cognitive skills. The market-driven curricula matches the needs of employers, therefore increasing employment outcomes of students in a rapidly shifting labour market.

It is no longer feasible to expect a traditional university degree to lead to job market returns when workers are required to constantly adapt to rapid changes in the workplace. Improving the quality and access of basic education is paramount but this should be complemented with increased investment in relevant skills training to ensure African youth do not lag behind.

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