Closing in on the future


The digital economy offers hope for the youth but gender issues must still be addressed

The process of digitilisation and automation is not the future of work – it’s the present, affecting every sphere of employment and productivity. This has important implications for South Africa in terms of youth employment, productivity and gender equality in the workplace.

Even if technology stays at present levels, it is already possible to automate half of the jobs that people do—meaning that very large numbers of people who are presently employed will be looking for new jobs within the next decade. So says Laurie Wright, Senior Lecturer at the Warsash School of Maritime Science and Engineering, Solent University: “People are calling it the fourth industrial revolution or “industry 4.0”. The first industrial revolution used steam power to mechanise production. The second used electric power to mass produce products while the third introduced computers to automate production. The fourth revolution is happening now, disruptive technologies including the internet of things, virtual reality, robotics, and artificial intelligence are changing the way we interact, work, and live. Highly automated, intelligent systems promise to transform people’s lives and even question the very role of humans.”

The implication is clear—young people need to ensure that their skills match the needs of companies that are undoing digital transformation themselves. But how can young people ensure they have the right skills when the pace of change is so fast and furious?

Matching youth skills to company needs

According to the results of the Siyakha Youth Assets study, one promising solution is employment programmes that offer matching —when training is based on employer requirements and programmes offers employers and young work seekers an interface to facilitate recruitment.

Launched in 2013, the study tracked 1974 people—predominantly African (94,4%), women (60%), and from poor backgrounds—as they participated in one of eight youth employability programmes offering skills training at 44 sites throughout South Africa and then for another two years after training was complete. Each programme provided training in technical and general workplace and social skills, as well as some vocational guidance and support.

“We found that 28% of the young people had found and retained work two years after completion of a YEP, while 17% had gone on to study further for typically higher-level qualifications. While the proportion employed appears to be small, when compared to a closely matched sample drawn from the Quarterly Labour Force Survey, we see that participants are 11 percentage points more likely to be employed.”

However, most young people in the survey are still without jobs two years later. Programmes that offered matching had the highest success:

“The positive outcomes from matching young people with the right skills directly with employers and orientating training to employer demands included a much higher probability of employment than those who did not receive matching, as well as a greater ability to retain a job, higher earnings, and for the unemployed, an increase in the number of job applications made, and the probability of still looking for a job, pointing to a greater belief in their own employability.

“We also found that more time on general workplace and social skills improves the chances of finding a job. These skills, including time management, teamwork, and self-confidence, were most useful for those without a matric, those living outside a major metro, and those who were not part of a youth employability programme that focused on matching. This kind of training was also positively associated with young people being persistent in looking for jobs.”

Training the next generation for the digital economy

Of course, the chances of matching employees’ and employers’ needs increase when a clear-cut skills shortage exists. This is precisely where the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) is creating opportunities. As much as automation may render various current tasks redundant, 4IR is also creating gaps for new entrants to the game. For Sandro Bucchianeri, chief security officer of Absa Group, 4IR is a golden opportunity to develop a talent pipeline to address youth unemployement as well as present and future digital skills needs—especially with regard to the global cybersecurity skills shortage.

“The estimated shortfall of 3.5 million jobs worldwide provides a startling statistic and a unique opportunity to make a difference. This gap must be filled to support the projected growth of the world’s cybersecurity sector over the next couple of years, but the talent pool is simply not keeping pace. In South Africa, the problem is compounded, as those who are trained in cybersecurity do not stay, as they are headhunted by global counterparts for premium packages.

Poverty and unemployment are at an all-time high. Limited access to formal education exacerbates the situation, and currently there does not seem to be a suitable solution in place to overcome this crisis. The 4IR is an exciting time for everyone, particularly the cybersecurity sector, as we are in desperate need of talent that is equipped to keep up with the industry,” writes Bucchianeri.

To address its own skills shortage, Absa established the Absa Cybersecurity Academy in conjunction with the Maharishi Institute (MI) in order to deliver “an externally focused, corporate social responsibility initiative aimed at empowering marginalised South African youth, who would otherwise not have had access to a tertiary education”. Participants – all of whom are fom marginalised communities, with 70% being women—graduate as certified cybersecurity analysts.

For Bucchianeri, the secret to successful skills development is developing the whole person by focusing not only on accredited cybersecurity training but also consciousness-based education, including transcendental meditation and life and work-ready skills as well as financial support and work experience.

“The founding principle of the academy is that everyone has the potential to be deemed ‘talent’. It is not necessary to have a wall hung with degrees to be a successful cybersecurity professional. Our first 24 students have just written their first internationally recognised exam, which they all passed. This is testament to not only the excellent education and training, but the holistic care for each student.

“It is our job to prepare the youth for the 4IR. We need to invest in upskilling them for the future of work and to meet global cybersecurity demands. We can make South Africa and the wider African continent the hub of cybersecurity talent; we have the people, we just need to help them rewrite their futures,” Bucchanieri concludes.

More women leaders but pay gap persists

For women, the future is looking good, as corporate transformation proceeds apace in favour of gender equality. However, there are concerns that the tech revolution might be hard-wired for sexism.

Executive search firm Jack Hammer reports a consistent year-on-year rise in the appointment of women to corporate positions, from 26% in 2015 to 32% in 2016, 38% in 2017 and 52% in 2018. Some attribute this upswing to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s “New Dawn” and “Thuman Mina” campaign. At least, he has ensured 50% representation in his Cabinet. This has been echoed in the corporate sector recently by Mercer’s appointment of Tamara Parker its CEO in South Africa, Anglo American’s decision to appoint veteran executive Nolitha Fakude as group chair, and PwC’s appointment of Shirley Machaba as chief executive for southern Africa. Then there is the appointment by Naspers breaking a 104-year run of white male chief executives by appointing 48-year-old Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa as chief executive – needless to say, the first black woman ever to hold this position.

Commenting on these developments, Jack Hammer COO Advaita Naidoo told Business Report: “To use a sports metaphor – you can’t score runs if you don’t swing the bat.

“Translated, this means that if companies are truly motivated to try to shift the needle on the gender demographic, when it comes to chief executive and senior supporting roles, they have to start populating their executive teams with a sufficient number of women, in relevant roles. In other words, don’t wait until a position opens up to start searching for the leader. Instead, make sure you have the leaders lined up and ready to step in when the position opens.”

“If you then take a closer look at the roles that the women are occupying, you find that there are far fewer who are running a full-scale business division, or have accountability for profit-and-loss (P&L) or operations or finance.

“Women are mostly to be found in supporting roles, such as human resources, marketing, legal, and compliance,” she says.

In other words: it’s not enough to appoint women to senior jobs without actively recruiting women to core business roles throughout the organisation. At the same time, the gender pay gap remains to be closed.

A recently released PwC report says men are still paid more than men in every sector, with the largest pay gaps found in healthcare (28.1%), consumer discretionary (25.1%), technology (22.9%) and financials (21.8%).

At the same time, the report says that companies that use female talent effectively are 45% more likely to report improved market share. Anastacia Tshesane, diversity and inclusion leader for PwC Southern Africa, commented: ”Achieving gender parity throughout the workplace is one of the most critical challenges that business leaders face today. The quality of women’s talent and leadership is very important to business - the skills and experience that they bring, including that gained outside of the workplace, has proven to be essential in strategic decision-making and in ethical, sustainable enterprise.”

Closing the gender digital gap

Despite the clear advantage to companies that use female talent effectively, in the online recruitment world, merely being a woman remains a disadvantage. As Rachel Adams, Research Specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council, writes:

“It is being increasingly acknowledged that AI systems are often biased, particularly along race and gender lines. For example, the recent recruitment algorithm development by Amazon to sort resumes for job applications displayed gender biases by downgrading resumes which contained the word “women” or which contained reference to women’s colleges. As the algorithm was trained on historical data and the preferential recruitment of males, it ultimately could not be fixed and had to be dropped.

“As research has shown, there is a critical link between the development of AI systems which display gender biases and the lack of women in teams that design them.

“But there is rather less recognition of the ways in which AI products incorporate stereotyped representations of gender within their very design.

For AI Now, a leading research institution looking into the social impact of AI, there is a clear connection between the male dominated AI industry and the discriminatory systems and products it produces.”

To complicate the picture, Adams writes, in South Africa, there has been little discussion around how women specifically may be affected by 4IR—especially since science and technology remain male dominated. Moreover, 4IR work opportunities are mostly internet based—but in Africa, women tend to have less internet access than men. Not only that, but the increase in automation, with its emphasis on efficiency and cost reduction, means that people in “routine intensive occupations” such as secretarial, call centre or care work, are more likely to replaced by computers—and it is typically women who fill these roles.

“The gender digital gap in South Africa, and on the African continent more broadly, is only widening, with women having lower digital literacy, less access to internet based technologies, and less relevant online content to men. This suggests that women may be left out of increasingly digital work opportunities too.

“In addition, due to the burden of care and domestic duties women tend to carry on top of paid work, women have significantly less time than men to undertake further education and training. That means they won’t easily be able to boost their digital skills.”

To overcome these problems, Adams points to the example of Ghana, where the STEMbees advocates science, technology, engineering and maths training for women and girls while addressing social issues such as digital safety at the same time.

“The country should also consider how technology can be used to empower and help women rather than shutting them out. There are many examples of this globally.

“Along with this learning, South Africa needs to thoroughly research and understand the effects of the fourth industrial revolution on women and the barriers—whether educational, social or technological—to accessing and utilising internet based resources.

“Policy responses to promoting women in STEM need to holistically address both the lack of women in STEM fields as well as the structural factors that have led to this situation,” writes Adam.

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