Much has been made of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and how it will impact the jobs of today, writes Martin Ndlovu, Skills Programme Manager, Microsoft 4Afrika. 4IR is the age of intelligence, with an increasing overlap between the physical and technological worlds, with technologies such as AI, machine learning, cloud computing, robotics and more impacting the way we live and work.

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

Understanding the past to make sense of the future

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.

The first industrial revolution was followed by the age of science and mass production, and then by the digital revolution. Now we have entered 4IR – the technological revolution. With every industrial revolution, there is a loss of jobs as machines become more sophisticated and take over the less skilled tasks previously performed by humans, but correspondingly, new jobs become available, ones requiring a new skill set to be gained.

This is a pattern that has been repeated through time – it’s not particular to 4IR. 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. And while none of us know what the 5th Industrial Revolution will look like, we can be assured that when it happens, new skills will be required at that time too.

What does 4IR and skills mean for Africa?

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, in jobs such as IT support, data engineering, graphic design, app development and many more.

For Africans this presents an opportunity, as 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.

Embrace change, don’t fight it

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. Stanford professor Carol Dweck is famous for her philosophy of a growth mindset – that “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work – brains and talent are just the starting point.

This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” 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.

We must also reshape our conventional understanding of skills transfer as something that occurs within the confines of a classroom. With the advent of new technology and the cloud, skilling is no longer an event that happens within four walls. We now carry a phone that can display or broadcast skilling to you wherever you are, whenever you want. We now have the opportunity to take advantage of technology to bring skills to the person who needs them, wherever they are.

We must shift our model of learning

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.

While online or virtual learning will certainly continue to be dominant while the coronavirus pandemic forces us to work remotely and stay physically distant, two very important factors must be considered to make a success of self-paced learning in a virtual sphere. The first is motivation. There usually has to be a compelling reason for a person to acquire a certain skill set. Typically, in a work environment, the motivation might be to secure a promotion or a new position, and the goal likely includes a certification.

Completing a certification is a powerful motivating factor for people to upskill themselves. Since the start of the Microsoft Global Skilling Initiative in June this year, more than half a million learners in the Middle East and Africa have completed or are still finishing one of the 10 learning paths using resources offered by Microsoft, LinkedIn and GitHub, which shows the tremendous appetite for upskilling involving certification.

The second factor is access to the infrastructure needed to be able to engage in self-paced learning, and this is something we cannot take for granted in the African context. A steady internet connection, whether it’s a device, laptop or smartphone, or even just internet speeds fast enough to stream video content – these are things that many people who need these skills the most do not have access to.

It is here that the Microsoft Airband Initiative and 4Afrika’s ongoing campaign to access TV White Spaces to bring affordable internet to rural and underserved communities, can make a tangible difference in the race to bring vital digital skills to those who need it most. Research shows that sub-Saharan Africa is rapidly becoming digitally connected, with internet penetration increasing tenfold in the region since 2000. And while gaps remain compared to the rest of the world, the proliferation of mobile technologies has been pronounced, opening the door for self-paced learning via mobile devices.

It’s likely that once the Covid-19 restrictions ease, we will find ourselves embracing a hybrid model of learning, incorporating both classroom-led learning and self-paced online learning in a variety of formats. Skilling comes in many forms and as Africans in the future, I believe that, as much as we have valued the traditional university degree, we will come to regard skills and abilities more highly than we will the certification. It will likely be a slow evolution, but one that is inevitable as continuous learning continues to gain momentum and relevance.

People and technology will always co-exist

Instead of feeling trepidation and anxiety, now is the time to embrace the wonderful advances that technology has enabled in the sphere of education and skills development. In the current  pandemic, technology has enabled alternative learning paths, avoiding a crippling loss of skills development opportunities.

There will always be things that humans can do better than machines – particularly the soft skills we must strive to develop alongside the digital skills needed to compete in a global workplace. Hybrid learning strategies will enable skills to keep pace with 4IR, and the industrial revolutions that will undoubtedly follow it.

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