The WEF’s 2018 Future of Jobs report revealed some (more) bad news for South Africa: The critical thinking and digital skills of the current workforce are inadequate for the progress of a successful economy in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The workplace of the new world could create as many as 133 million new roles but in order to fully take advantage of these, a workforce with the skills needed by digital-era organisations is essential.
And our current education system clearly isn’t producing sufficient of those skilled individuals. What’s needed is a disruptive force that will turn the current schooling model on its head in much the same way that Airbnb did for the hotel industry. Finding this force requires collaboration between government and the private sector to foster critical thinking. Using technology that’s already available, this collaboration could see a fundamental shift in education from the moment a child enters school to the day they retire.
In recent years, a lot of column inches have been filled by writers expressing fears around technology and automation destroying jobs. While these fears aren’t entirely unfounded, most of these predictions ignore the new work opportunities upcoming technological shifts will bring. According to the WEF, labour intensive roles in sectors like mining and manufacturing are the most likely to disappear, while professional services roles adapted to the new technologies are most likely to grow.
With the manufacturing and mining sectors still employing more than three times as many people as professional services in South Africa, the country is set for massive disruption. While both the Basic and Higher Education Department have been making all the right noises when it comes to readying South Africa for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it’s clear that much more needs to be done.
In a country where more than 4 500 schools still have pit latrines, it’s difficult to see the traditional custodians of education rolling out a universal system that promotes analytical thinking and innovation, or technology design and programming; just two of the skills needed in the 4IR workplace. Unless something drastic changes, we’re likely to see a widening education gap. Those parents with resources will pay to ensure that their children receive the skills they need. Those without, meanwhile, will receive an education that’s increasingly irrelevant.
As a consequence, South Africa could face the twin threat of a massive skills shortage and increasingly high levels of unemployment. In order to avoid this nightmare scenario, government and the private sector need to come together and re-imagine how education is approached in South Africa. Rather than seeing it merely as something that stops when you leave school or university, it needs to be seen as something ongoing. The focus, in other words, shouldn’t be on providing specific skills, so much as equipping people to learn new skills as and when they need them.
Here technology has a massive role to play. Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) can easily and affordably be integrated into classrooms. Using smartphones and tools like Google Cardboard, even learners in remote areas can move away from rote learning to problem-solving. This can be done using game mechanics, which guide learners on how to do independent research and analysis, as well as critical thinking. Perhaps most importantly, however, it teaches them to work with technology. That’s an increasingly important skill in a world where workplaces are dominated by tech.
None of that can happen, however, if these tools aren’t put into the hands of learners and they don’t have the access to connectivity to make the most of them. Here, government needs to show real ambition. The odd pilot project here or there won’t help. There needs to be a mass rollout, not only of technology but of the training needed for teachers to equip learners with 4IR skills. If government can show that it is committed to doing this in a clean, transparent manner, then the private sector will jump on board with serious enthusiasm. It is, after all, in their interests to have a workforce that can embrace the challenges of an evolving workplace.
Most importantly, this has to happen now. We can no longer rely on a gradually evolving education sector. Change is coming and if we’re not prepared, it’ll overtake us.
Glenn Gillis is the Managing Director of Sea Monster