Why we need to reset the lens through which we view skills

Much has been said of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and how it will impact the job market.

4IR is the age of intelligence, with an increasing overlap between the physical and technological worlds.

Here, technologies such as AI (artificial intelligence), machine learning, cloud computing and robotics play a bigger role in the way we live and work.

Already, the transformative power of 4IR is being felt in the workplace.

Emerging technologies are changing the jobs landscape and the accepted means of doing business. This will revolutionise most workplaces, completely changing what they look like and how they operate.

But this is not a new trend. To really appreciate a rapidly evolving job and skills market, it’s prudent to go back in history to the first great jobs upheaval – the original Industrial Revolution.

The first industrial revolution marked a sharp turn in the fortunes of humankind. We moved from a largely agrarian lifestyle to one that was shaped by machines – where farming and hand production gave way to machine production.

The introduction of the steam engine and waterpower forced a significant change in the work landscape.

Although jobs involving unskilled menial labour declined, a new set of jobs came to the fore; after all, mechanics were needed for this mechanical revolution.

This was followed by the age of science and mass production and then by the digital revolution.

Now we have entered 4IR – the technological revolution. While it’s tempting to dwell on the negatives of job losses and the fear of “machines taking jobs,” we should not be intimidated by the notion of learning new skills.

Task-based system

And while none of us knows what the 5th Industrial Revolution will look like, we can be assured that when it happens, new skills will be required too.

The pandemic has accelerated the normalising of remote work. A significant realisation on the part of many employers has been that a great deal of work can be completed on a task-based system with weekly check-ins.

This has highlighted a modern reality that anyone can be part of a team as long as they have a device and a reliable internet connection.

This is more prominent with jobs that are IT or digital-based such as IT support, data engineering, graphic design, app development, among others. For Africans, this presents an opportunity as the location is no longer necessarily a barrier to entry for a company operating in the USA or Western Europe.

While we are starting to see the first wave of Africans being considered for remote jobs, we still have a long way to go before we reach a critical mass of digital skills to be considered a competitive outsourcing hub.

It is, therefore, important for African governments to consider upskilling their populations to compete in the global employment market.

However, in order for Africa to become a digital hub for skills, we need to reshape our thinking around skilling.

We must abandon the notion that skilling is a once-off event that happens at the start of our careers (the traditional university/college precept) and look at it as a continuous arc of learning that progresses throughout our working lives. It is imperative for all current and future employees to adopt a growth mindset.

This helps us frame our thinking to know that whenever a new opportunity is made available, we are ready to upskill ourselves to meet this new challenge. Naturally, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated our shift to digital learning platforms.

While training has traditionally been predominantly classroom-driven, the pandemic made the shift to virtual an unavoidable and essential progression.

From necessity, people have come to realise that virtual training is a viable option. Self-paced online learning opens many doors for people who may otherwise not be exposed to these experiences.

For example, 4Afrika-supported SkillsLabs across Africa have migrated to digital learning platforms during the pandemic, while our volunteer programme, MySkills4Afrika, has pivoted to virtual engagements as travel bans and lockdowns make in-person training and engagements unachievable.

- Martin Ndlovu is Skills Programme Manager Microsoft 4Afrika  

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