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The smarter machines, the more important humans

Critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and judgement are among the keys to a 4IR future, writes INSAAF DANIELS, redPanda Software human capital GM

South Africa’s unemployment rate is unsustainable and presents a massive threat to the country’s stability. It’s to this backdrop that any hint of job displacements is met with resistance and fear. This is understandable, but when it comes to the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), we have no choice as a country but to do everything we can to prepare our current workforce and future workers for the digital revolution.

Businesses are caught in a catch-22. The business sector must embrace 4IR technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence. They will be left behind, become less competitive and ultimately lose out to their competitors if they don’t. It’s a matter of survival. At the same time, they are well aware that technology is already displacing some jobs and the pace this happens at is likely to increase.

There are technological solutions for every aspect of a business. However, every one of these solutions need skilled people to work with, and manage, the technology. In other words, technology is also creating new jobs.  In a few years’ time, there will be in-demand jobs we haven’t even imagined yet.

Businesses already understand that existing personnel should be upskilled wherever possible, as opposed to hiring from the outside. Ongoing education is crucial. Adult education should centre around broadening one’s digital skills and practising adaptability. Staff should be made acutely aware of the need to learn and upgrade their skill sets if they are to remain employable in the new, digital world.

Our schooling system should also be monitored closely and reinvent itself to prepare students for a fast-changing environment by emphasising agility, flexibility, creative problem solving, and critical thinking. There must be a broad acknowledgement that 4IR skills are not just IT-related. Those that choose not to go into programming or robotics, for example, still need relevant 4IR skills. The change to the workplace is going to be radical and affect everyone, from those in creative industries, to human resources, to administration, to the professions.

What sorts of skills will be most invaluable in our new digitised workplaces? These can be broadly defined in two categories. The first batch are those that require IT-related skills or a heightened digital understanding to directly manage and run technology. These include jobs that didn’t exist a few years ago, such as social media management, digital performance marketing, data analysis, robotics, user experience, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, blockchain and much more. Each one of these fields has an array of jobs and applications.

The second batch of skills that will become increasingly important are human skills, or skills that may well have been considered soft skills a few years ago, that are already becoming crucial and will continue to be vital for future employees. These include critical thinking and problem solving, creativity, active learning and evolving, emotional intelligence, and judgement and decision-making.

For a company to build the skills it needs to fully realise the potential of 4IR, it needs to develop an understanding of where its sector is going, how business is evolving, and which skills will likely be the best to serve this changing landscape.

Obviously, putting in place programs that upskill and reskill staff in a variety of technological fields is crucial. However, equally crucial is instilling a company-wide mindset of a willingness to embrace change because if one thing is certain, it’s that the evolution of the workplace will continue at breakneck speed and to remain relevant you must evolve with it.

Businesses would do well to engage with their staff and find out where they want to grow. Each business will have staff well-versed in how their particular fields are evolving and listen to them and find out which personal growth areas are important to them.

An unfortunate paradox in South Africa is that while there is crippling unemployment, there is also a massive skills shortage. There just aren’t enough skills, especially in highly specialised fields. Creativity in how we close this skills gap is no longer a luxury but a necessity. How do we increase the number of employable people, and do so quickly? redAcademy is an example of this creativity: it places young talented people into a fast-tracked programme of learning and live environment coding, with the goal of producing workplace-ready talent in a single year.

Perhaps the biggest shift in how businesses deal with the 4IR skills conundrum will lie in pushing staff to adapt and adjust to work alongside technology, and prioritising upskilling over new hires where possible. Beyond this, as machines become more technically proficient, it’s not hard to imagine human skills becoming increasingly more valued in the workplace.

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