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Why closing Africa’s skills gap is crucial

Youth during a graduation ceremony after
Youth during a graduation ceremony after attending a programme meant to bridge the gap of skilled labour in the job market. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA  

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 and manage it.

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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 60percent of the continent’s total population. By then, 15 percent of the world’s working-age population will be in Africa, and the continent’s urbanised population will exceed 700 million (more than 50 percent).

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 recognise 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.

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 percent of global CEOs said they were concerned about the availability of key skills. Among African business leaders, this figure jumped to 87 percent, with 45percent 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 percent of African CEOs (global: 55 percent) said the skills shortage was preventing them from innovating effectively, while 59 percent (global: 47percent) conceded that their quality standards and customer experience were being undermined. In addition, 54 percent (global: 44 percent) confirmed that they were missing their growth targets because of inadequate skills.

Only three percent of African CEOs (global: four percent) 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 percent of African respondents (global: 46 percent) 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 percent) also identified establishing a strong pipeline of skills direct from educational institutions as an important step.

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.

The writer is CEO, Central $ Southern Africa, PwC.

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