The robots are coming, and millions of people will be laid off.

Automation will create more jobs than it destroys.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will accelerate inequality.

New technologies will enable Africa to catch up with the rest of the world.

The headlines regarding emerging technologies that we read today are as attention-grabbing as they are contradictory, and the only clear conclusion they all point to is that no one really knows where these developments are ultimately going to take us.

From nuclear bombs to nuclear medicine, technologies have the potential to be used to do good or harm. That’s because they have no inherent morality. So while technological change has always been disruptive, the ultimate impact of the current revolution will very much depend on how we as business, government, civil society and ordinary citizens choose to use it and manage it.

The unprecedented speed of change precipitated by the Fourth Industrial Revolution is expected to bring more advancements in the next 10 years than in the last 250. This will no doubt lead to a range of potential socio-economic impacts, resulting in major disruptions to labour markets, growth in new occupations, ways of working, skills requirements and tools to augment workers’ capabilities.

While this is unfolding, Africa will also be experiencing unprecedented demographic changes. From now until 2030, the continent is projected to expand the size of its workforce by more than the rest of the world combined, as its young population enters the world of work.

The World Economic Forum estimates that 15 to 20 million young people will join the African workforce every year for the next two decades. By 2030, Africa will be home to more than a quarter of the world’s population under 25, who will make up 60% of the continent’s total population. By then, 15% of the world’s working-age population will be in Africa, and the continent’s urbanized population will exceed 700 million (more than 50%).

What makes these statistics more striking is that Africa will be unleashing this considerable human capital at a time when the rest of the world is getting older. On the other hand, the continent’s economic prosperity and social stability will be inextricably linked to what becomes of these young people.

So while the continent faces unprecedented technological disruption, it also needs to recognize the urgency of this opportunity to drive inclusion and economic growth through the development and adoption of future-ready strategies for education and job creation.

Laying a foundation for the continent’s current and future workforce requires a deliberate policy approach, private sector commitment and institutional reforms. It is vital for all sectors to invest in building skills, not just for today, but to establish a sustainable pipeline of talent to meet future skills needs.

CEO survey respondents identified the most important factor for closing a skills gap in their organization
Image: PwC

Feedback from business leaders confirms that they are already struggling to find the skills they need, and not just in Africa. In PwC’s 22nd Annual Global CEO Survey, released in January 2019, no less than 79% of global CEOs said they were concerned about the availability of key skills. Among African business leaders, this figure jumped to 87%, with 45% noting that they were “extremely concerned”.

The current lack of skills is having real consequences. Of the CEOs who were extremely concerned about the availability of key skills, 65% of African CEOs (global: 55%) said the skills shortage was preventing them from innovating effectively, while 59% (global: 47%) conceded that their quality standards and customer experience were being undermined. In addition, 54% (global: 44%) confirmed that they were missing their growth targets because of inadequate skills.

Only 3% of African CEOs (global: 4%) we surveyed said skills availability was not impacting on their organisations’ growth and profitability.

The message business leaders are sending is clear. We need to act. Now. They also appear to be heeding their own advice, with 47% of African respondents (global: 46%) recognising significant retraining and upskilling as the most significant interventions needed to close skills gaps in their organisations. Twenty-two percent of CEOs in Africa (global: 17%) also identified establishing a strong pipeline of skills direct from educational institutions as an important step.

To make these initiatives pay off, organizations need to define their current and future workforce needs, taking into account the impact of emerging technologies across their value chain, from strategy to execution, and preparing their workers to be fit for purpose.

Businesses also need to adapt to remain sustainable, and the skills gap is a critical barrier to organizations successfully exploiting the promise of new technologies. Recent research suggests that the companies that are innovating the most are also ones that are growing and creating more jobs.

These developments are impacting the nature of jobs and the skills required, creating opportunities and demand for new roles, which could be translated into a positive growth trajectory for Africa. To achieve this Africa needs to expand its pool of highly skilled employees through the development of cognitive STEM-based skills (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as well as non-cognitive soft skills like sense-making and social intelligence competencies.

It will be imperative for employees of the future to demonstrate the skills that machines cannot learn. Non-cognitive, character competencies, as opposed to routine learning and knowledge-based skills, are likely to be the qualities most valued. It will no longer be about “what you know”, but more about “what you do” with that information, through the utilization of value-based expertise that will enable employees to remain relevant in a more technologically enabled workforce.

We can speculate about where the Fourth Industrial Revolution will lead us, but it will take immense cooperation, negotiation, selflessness and vision to shape the coming technology revolution to be an agent of positive change.

In a scenario where machines do more of the routine, mindless tasks and employees are lauded for their human qualities, the future promises to be vastly better than the present. Ironically, it will take other quintessentially human qualities to determine whether such an outcome is achieved. For today’s young people to realise their future potential, including those in Africa, the power of new technologies will need to be matched by the wisdom and sound judgement of those charged with managing the pitfalls and promise they introduce. Only then will we be able to make Africa work like we know it can.