The jobs in South Africa most at risk of total digital automation – and the skills you need to learn to remain relevant

With 35% of all jobs in South Africa – almost 5.7 million – currently at risk of total digital automation within a mere seven years, the country could see a crippling effect compounded by a fragile economy and growing unemployment.

This is according to Dr Roze Phillips, Post Graduate Diploma in Futures Studies alumnus from the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) and MD for Accenture Consulting in Africa, who says that the country needs to act now to ensure that humans and machines can work together in the future.

“Our research shows that if South Africa can double the pace at which its workforce acquires skills relevant for human-machine collaboration, it can reduce the number of jobs at risk from 3.5 million (20%) in 2025 to just 2.5 million.”

“With the threat of automation growing, South Africa is less prepared than other countries and needs to give its workforce skills to participate in the digital economy. In a country with a staggering 27.7% unemployment and jobless youths making up 75% of unemployment, the future looks bleak,” Phillips said.

Phillips said job transition is not new. In the pursuit of higher productivity at lower cost options, jobs have for many years been shed.

“In recent times, many manufacturing and standard business process intensive jobs were outsourced to countries where labour was cheaper. Those jobs rarely made it back to home soil but at least outsource recipient countries benefitted from the employment opportunities created there.

“Today, the same phenomenon occurs. But now, the search for labour arbitrage is no longer between physical geographies; today, jobs are lost to the digital world and will, in all probability, never be done by humans again.”

She said that in a country like South Africa where poverty remains, rates of unemployment are high and social security questionable, it’s vital for the country to upskill its people to collaborate with machines to enhance their own productivity, not job losses.

“Machines do not consume things and whilst they can replace human work, they do not drive purchasing behaviour or contribute to GDP. Society will regress if humans can’t work, earn and spend. South Africa needs to learn how to ‘run with machines’.”

Which jobs in South Africa are the most at risk?

Book keeping, accounting and auditing clerks have the highest risk of automation said Phillips. It’s not just manual labour jobs.

Accenture researched various job categories drawn from Stats SA to gain insight into human-like (analytical, leadership, social intelligence, creative) and machine-like activities (routine work, transactions, manual labour) taking into account the type of work, skills and tasks, the recent skills evolution in jobs, degree of work automation, work supply demographics and productive structure.

“The results clearly show that occupations that allocate more time to human-like activities have a lower probability of automation while workers involved in occupations such as production, office administration, tellers, cashiers, farming, food preparation, accounting, auditing, insurance claims and policing processing clerks, construction, mining, transportation, installation and maintenance are at highest risk.”

Both white- and blue-collar jobs are at risk. The more predictable and repetitive the activities that make up the tasks, the more likely it is to be replicated by machines or automated.

The safest jobs are those that require influencing and advising people, teaching, programming, real-time discussions, negotiating and cooperating with co-workers.

Phillips said that although the research seems to paint a gloomy picture, the opportunity for South Africa is considerable.

“Digital technology will usher in a new economic era, exposing new sources of value and growth, increasing efficiency and driving competitiveness. For South Africa to rise to the challenge the country needs to recalibrate its economy and its workforce for digital, creating entirely new products, services and markets. And the time to do that is now.”

Which skills are critical to learn?

In the digital economy work will no longer be restricted to one employer, job or team. People will need to constantly learn new skills remain relevant. Accenture has identified six skills that are critical to securing a job and ultimately retaining it.

  • Learn to Earn: Foundation skills are critical – literacy, numeracy and digital literacy as well as basic employability skills such as conduct and work protocols (time management, listening, and negotiation).
  • Build Tech Know How: The ability to use digital devices and share data, working effectively alongside machine intelligence, understanding how technology and data are built, manipulated and applied.
  • Apply WeQ: Social and relationship building will gain greater importance with teamwork, collaboration, communication, social and emotional intelligence and ability to manage others as key drivers.
  • Create and Solve: Problem solving will require thinking unconventionally, gathering ideas from diverse sources an applying design thinking, critical thinking, reason and logic to assess and analyse problems, and entrepreneurial mindset.
  • Cultivate a Growth Mindset: The foundation blocks for personal resilience and ability to cope with and adapt to change will require skills such as the ability to cultivate curiosity, openness, a growth mindset and the capacity of lifelong learning, underpinned by cognitive functions such as flexibility.
  • Specialise for Work: Specialised work skills will no longer be static or fixed in the digital economy and will need to continuously change based on context, industry, market demand and type of work.

What leaders need to do today for tomorrow

Leaders will have the opportunity to reshape their organisations and society at large for the better if they accelerate reskilling people. But it needs to happen at an accelerated speed, said Accenture.

Rapid reskilling can ensure that you keep your workforce but constantly change the way they do their jobs with innovative learning methods, enhancing digital capabilities to meet the challenging expectations of clients, service delivery and production, said Phillips.

Shifting from point-specific training to lifelong learning makes workers and organisations nimbler and organisations more adaptable to volatile markets.

Digital learning methods such as virtual reality and augmented reality technology can provide realistic simulations to help workers master new tasks so they can work with smart machinery. The same technology can be used to help reinforce correct procedures on the shop floor, monitoring how employees execute tasks and coaching them to do it the best way, said Phillips.


Read: These are the jobs most at risk because of automation: study

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