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A hi-tech revolution is coming

Credit: Yuriko Nakao Reuters

By Khanya Vilakazi 

The world is on the cusp of a hi-tech revolution that is profoundly altering the way we live and work. This revolution will permanently alter our fundamental perception of work and, most notably, our ability to trade time and skill for money. However, one thing is clear: the response to this change must be integrated and comprehensive. And it must be now.

In 2015, the World Economic Forum (WEF) used the phrase the Fourth Industrial Revolution for the sweeping changes that are the result of technology. A report, by Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the WEF, predicted that there are 7.1 million job losses expected over the next five years. This projection further erodes the already scarred South African labour landscape.

The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanise production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third. This digital revolution is characterised by a blending of technologies and affects every industry.

In terms of this trend, technological innovation will lead to long-term gains in efficiency and productivity. However, this revolution will yield greater inequality, particularly in its potential to disrupt labour markets. As automation substitutes for labour across the entire economy, the net displacement of workers by machines will stretch the gap between returns to capital and returns to labour.

Substitute workers

Already, in 2012 Momentum Machines built a robot that can make, wrap and bag 360 individually customised hamburgers in an hour. Contrast that with one burger in eight minutes by a team of McDonald’s human staff. This device is clearly not meant to make employees more efficient, but to substitute them completely, disrupting the job market altogether.
I am certain that talent, more than capital, will represent the critical factor of production. This will give rise to a dichotomy job market that is polarised into “low-skill/low-pay and high-skill/high-pay” spheres, as articulated by Professor Klaus Schwab. Talent management will be the key to survival for businesses, big or small.

The greatest challenge for institutions of higher learning in such a swiftly evolving social and economic environment is how to transfer knowledge and skills to students that will serve these institutions in the long-term when the pace of change is astounding.

The South African government, its Sector Education and Training Authorities, training committees and other policy makers must rethink the skills strategies that are failing to prepare the workforce for the supersonic pace of change that is unsettling every industry and dictating every aspect of how we work and how we live. More than 35 percent of the skills considered important in today’s workforce will have changed within five years.

This calls for training institutions to remodel training if some occupations will significantly change or altogether disappear by the time the students graduate. Today’s challenges demand mastery of facts or concepts.

At the same time, fixed-job descriptions are becoming obsolete and employees will now be required to perform functions outside of their former job descriptions.
We have heard a growing outcry about the quality of our artisans (and in other occupations), despite very impressive academic records. This, then, begs the question: are we training people for a world that no longer exists?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution affirms that knowledge is no longer an end in itself, but rather a resource which should be used to create new knowledge.
The bottom line, however, is still the same: business leaders and senior executives need to understand their changing environment, challenge the assumptions of their operating teams, and relentlessly and continuously innovate.

Today, in our volatile and digital world, there is unrecognised risk in not taking risks, especially to adapt to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and perhaps the Fifth one that may catch some organisation off guard.

Khanya Vilakazi is the Human Capital and Skills Development Manager at the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa.

This piece appear nationally in Business Report

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