The 4IR and COVID-19 have forced us into a new reality that requires the re-examination and restructuring of South Africa’s post-school skills development system so that it is fit-for-purpose to prepare the workforce for the new world of work.
The article describes features of the new ‘jobless’ world of work and changes in the nature of work, jobs and occupations as we move away from full-time employment in fixed occupations with clearly defined job descriptions.
It highlights the skills required for more informal work arrangements in the ‘gig economy’ as more work is being done in multi-disciplinary, cross-functional teams cooperating in temporary, virtual work relationships.
The article motivates the need for the following fundamental changes to the skills development system:
- Give formal recognition for learning achievements in 4IR skills that aren’t linked to credits on the NQF.
- Make provision for the skills needs of agile 4IR companies and smaller businesses.
- Address the skills needs of the existing workforce.
- Adapt the teaching and learning models.
- Scrap the OFO in the WSP and in the QCTO qualifications model.
- Consider alternative occupation-directed qualification models that don’t include work experience inside the qualification.
- Address the challenges relating to work experience in qualifications.
- Rethink the skills planning process and the use of the WSP.
Note on National Planning: What is very concerning is that there is not a single reference to the 4th Industrial Revolution in the National Planning Commission’s Analysis of PSET trends towards NDP 2030 of April 2020.
The report explores what needs to be done to ensure that the 2030 goals and targets are met, what courses of correction are needed and the key conditions required for the recommendations in the report to be realised. These issues surely cannot be addressed while completely disregarding the significant impact that 4IR will have on the work context for which the Post-School Education and Training system must prepare the future workforce.
COVID-19 has catapulted us into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and both are contributing to the rapidly changing workplace.
“Coronavirus will speed up 4IR (by) forcing the worlds of business and education to embrace many of the tools that will drive the fourth industrial revolution. ... It is clear that the
coronavirus crisis will have at least one positive outcome. It will provide a dramatic, global and unavoidable case study of the fourth industrial revolution in action.” (Arthur Goldstuck)
Klaus Schwab (2015) executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF) describes 4IR as a transformation unlike anything humankind has experienced before, one that will fundamentally change the way we live, work and relate to one another.
Schwab emphasised three distinguishing characteristics of this transformation:
- The velocity of change: the speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent and changes are happening exponentially rather than in a linear way.
- The scope: 4IR is disrupting almost every industry in every country.
- The systems impact: the changes that will be brought about by 4IR are so extensive that entire systems of production, management and governance will be transformed.
The 4IR and COVID-19 have forced us into a new reality, a ‘new normal’ that demands the re-examination of many of our long-held beliefs about work and how we interact with colleagues in our virtual ‘offices’. This demands that we rethink our ingrained beliefs about how to prepare the workforce for a new world of work.
This article focuses on the post-school skills development (SD) system for occupation-directed training for the new ‘workplace’. It describes the changes that I believe must be made if we are to prepare the current and future workforce for the new world of work. This article does not deal with the school system or academic higher education although they also require significant restructuring.
2. The new ‘workplace’
“As a result of the coronavirus, the workplace will never be the same. Even the word ‘workplace’ suddenly seems obsolete, as the physical location in which we now work has merged with the places in which we eat, sleep, learn, exercise, and play.” (Dianne Vienne)
Let us explore some of the features of the new ‘workplace’ that we are or will be facing as a result of the devastating impact of the virus combined with the 4IR’s “Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy”. (McKinsey Global Institute, 2013)
Nature of work: A larger part of the workforce will be engaged in alternative work arrangements such as freelancing or contract-based work in the gig economy’, i.e. the labour market characterised by flexible, on-demand work in short-term contracts or freelance work. Workers are paid for each ‘gig’ they do such as UBER car drivers, but none of them will earn a regular salary. More work will be done by cross-functional project teams working together in temporary relationships and collaborating through virtual communication across
organisational boundaries and time zones. (For more on the workers in the ‘gig’ economy: Deloitte, 2018: 40-41)
Employer-employee relationships: Changes in the nature of work and jobs will inevitably result in a significant shift in employment patterns with less permanent employer-employee relationships. To keep skills current workers will have to accelerate their learning, including pursuing a diversity of work experiences or working for multiple ‘employers’ at the same time. (Deloitte, 2017: 37-38)
“... nearly six out of ten wage and salaried workers worldwide are in either part-time or temporary forms of wage and salaried employment”. (International Labour Organisation, 2015)
Changes in jobs and occupations
- 65% of children starting school in 2018 will enter jobs that don’t exist yet.
- 65% of children now at school will have 14 different jobs before age 40.
“If you’re training people for a job that’s already been invented, or if you’re going to school in preparation for a job that’s already been invented, I would suggest that you’re going to have problems somewhere down the road.” (Deloitte, 2017: 102)
The reality is that we are moving away from full-time, life-long employment in fixed occupations with clearly defined job descriptions – except in static organisations that aren’t going to survive beyond 2025 anyway.
- Occupations are becoming more fluid and cross-functional with many people performing functions that cut across occupations and working in trans-disciplinary work teams.
- Peoples' relationships to occupations are far more fluid now than they were 10 years ago. People now move flexibly between ‘occupations’, some of which are unrelated to the qualifications that afforded them their initial entry into the world of work.
- Many new and emerging occupations cannot even be classified as ‘occupations’ because they are too loosely defined and too impermanent to fit into any classification of an occupation.
Career paths and job descriptions: Careers will become increasingly unpredictable and undefined and require us to explore multi-role, flexible career paths rooted in ongoing learning. We are beginning to see the end of the fixed job description with more jobs having only the core functions specified and employees having to figure the rest out as they continuously adapt to new technology and the changing work context. We have to prepare the workforce to work with shifting, constantly changing and less prescriptive job descriptions – or possibly work without job descriptions as we now know them. The same will apply to occupations, forcing us to accept broad occupational descriptions without clear and stable sets of skills requirements.
“Multiple careers will be commonplace and lifelong learning to prepare for occupational change will see major growth. To take advantage of this well-experienced and still vital workforce, organizations will have to rethink the traditional career paths in organizations, creating more diversity and flexibility.” (Institute for the Future, 2011)
New skills required by the workforce: The 2017 Deloitte study (p. 30) confirmed that the reconfiguration of jobs, occupations and careers clearly require us to rethink the types of skills needed in this rapidly changing work environment. A large part of the workforce is already moving into jobs of short duration which require workers to be more flexible, multi-skilled and continuously learning new skills. Those who find work will need a basket of essential skills that can be applied in diverse projects and adapted to different work contexts.
- By 2021, 35% of the skills “that are considered important in today’s workforce will have changed. … Some jobs will disappear, others will grow and jobs that don’t even exist today will become commonplace. What is certain is that the future workforce will need to align its skillset to keep pace”. (WEF, 2016)
- 41% of all work activities in South Africa are susceptible to automation and 39% of core skills required across occupations will be wholly different by 2020 (WEF, May 2017: iii) - 60% of what students learn in their 1st year at university is outdated by their 3rd year.
Studies by the WEF, Institute for the Future and other researchers identified the skills that will be essential in the new world of work. They include Virtual collaboration, Sense-making, Social Intelligence, Novel and Adaptive Thinking, Technological Literacy and STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and maths), as well as uniquely human skills such as Interpretation, Design, Synthetic Thinking and Problem Solving. The lists also include other skills that we don’t clearly understand yet: Computational Thinking, Transdisciplinarity and Cognitive Load Management. The SD system will have to prioritise these skills, especially as most are not covered in accredited programmes and they don’t fit neatly into the credit-awarding system in the National Qualifications Framework (NQF).
“Everything that can be digitized and automated will be embedded into intelligent machines and fundamentally, those jobs that are based on codified knowledge or codifiable knowledge will be performed by robots. Thus, all routine-based jobs will disappear, and the roles of individuals within organizations will be increasingly related to auditing activities and, most importantly, innovative and critical thinking.” (Lee et al., 2018: 9)
The ‘jobless’ future and the ‘useless class’: In 2016, before the large-scale closure of businesses and the devastating loss of jobs due to the virus, Harari (p. 370) predicted that we could face “the creation of a massive new unworking class: people devoid of any economic, political or even artistic value, who contribute nothing to the prosperity, power and glory of society. This ‘useless class’ will not be merely unemployed – it will be unemployable”.
- … “ roughly half of all jobs will be lost to automation in less than two decades. If those predictions come true, and we are indeed headed for a jobless future, now would be the right time to kick off a policy discussion on how we can prepare for it. (WEF, January 2017)
- The advent of a jobless economy raises concern because tasks traditionally performed by humans are being – or are at risk of being – taken over by robots, especially those enabled with artificial intelligence. (World Bank, 2019: 20)
South Africa’s Statistician General reported in a radio interview on 20 May 2020 that the ‘expanded’ unemployment rate was then already around 38%. This trend is likely to continue as businesses try to keep their doors open with less but more productive staff and by using more 4IR technology to work smarter in order to survive beyond the devastating impact of COVID-19.
- Why the SD system must be restructured for the 4IR economy
If we analyse the main features of South Africa’s post-school SD system in the context described above, then there are indications that the system is failing to prepare the workforce for the new world of work which is, ultimately, its main goal.
Clem Sunter warned: “We are still preparing students for the market that prevailed fifty years ago, educating students for the job market of the middle of the last century.”
Occupation-focused system: The occupations on the Organising Framework for Occupations (OFO) form the central pillar of the SD system and this is the main fault line that runs throughout the system. The 2019 version of the OFO lists about 1500 occupations. (https://webapps.dhet.gov.za/OFORegister) The OFO is used for:
1) Collecting information on skills needed in the different sectors of the economy,
2) Compiling the sectoral and national lists of occupations for which employers find it hard to recruit staff (previously described as ‘scarce skills’),
3) Developing qualifications for specific occupations (even specialisations within occupations) in the qualifications model of the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO),
4) The quality assurance of training delivery, and
5) Determining funding priorities.
The OFO is not an appropriate tool for planning skills priorities for a world of work that is fundamentally changing and being driven by the ‘disruptive technologies’ of the 4IR.
- The OFO does not – and cannot – make provision for the new types of jobs that are less structured, less permanent and continuously evolving.
- The emerging jobs, especially those in non-traditional, ground-breaking companies, often have fuzzy job titles that relate to innovation and/or the actual work that is done is only vaguely related to job titles that cannot be found on the OFO anyway.
- New occupations emerge, mutate and/or disappear completely before the HR department has the opportunity to develop job descriptions and the occupations can be added to the OFO by the Department of Higher Education and Training. The fact is that the OFO is not designed for the new ‘occupations’ that will be created by the 4IR. It will mainly be a record of the occupations of the 2nd and 3rd Industrial Revolutions.
- Furthermore, the current difficulty that employers face in matching their employee’s job titles to the occupations on the OFO will increase as job descriptions and the required skill sets become more fluid. • Therefore, the current national and sectoral skills planning processes to stimulate economic growth will be based on inaccurate and incomplete information and – more importantly – the truly ‘scarce skills’ needed for the 4IR economy will not be included in skills strategies and plans.
Workplace skills planning: The Skills Development Plan (previously the Workplace Skills Plan - WSP) is not ideal for collecting accurate and reliable information on the skills needs across the sectors of the economy. Employers submit this document annually to the Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) as applications for Mandatory Grants. It is a time-consuming process that requires employers to provide personal information, skills priorities and training needs of all staff per OFO occupation. As the submission is not mandatory smaller organisations don’t submit WSPs as they don’t see much benefit in doing so. Therefore, SETAs fail to take note of the skills of the emerging, innovative 4IR organisations that are likely to be the driving forces behind the Googles, Teslas or Facebooks of South Africa’s competitive economy. Furthermore, the data SETAs receive is probably
unreliable as employers have to report against the OFO occupations that don’t relate to the job functions of their employees.
Focus on qualifications and accredited programmes: The SETAs’ funding for occupation-directed training is almost exclusively allocated to programmes leading to registered qualifications and – to a minor extent – shorter accredited skills programmes. Many of the qualifications were developed five or more years ago or more recently
for specific OFO occupations, so they may no longer address current needs. The problem is compounded by the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) scorecard that enables employers to gain more points for supporting these programmes rather than for non-accredited programmes that develop 4IR skills. Many learnerships and other accredited programmes are simply implemented to increase B-BBEE points – with less concern for the benefit to the learners in terms of employment or income generation.
“We are currently in the midst of an industrial revolution with an exponential pace of change and it is disrupting every industry in every country. Skills that we learned in formal education are now becoming irrelevant. Employees should be prepared to completely reskill themselves.” (Jacob Morgan)
Work placement: Most of the occupation-directed programmes include placement in a workplace as an integral part of the qualification to enable learners to apply their learning in an actual work context. Unfortunately, a substantial percentage of learners – especially those in outlying, poor communities – don’t find work placement to complete their qualifications. It is no surprise that the National Planning Commission’s analysis of trends in the post-school system found that the “fundamental challenge is gaining access to workplace learning as part of meeting qualification requirements for National Diplomas and occupational qualifications” (NPC, 2020: 42). In a recent survey of principals of public Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges, the single challenge that kept most of them awake was finding work placement for learners – even before COVID-19. This situation is likely to get progressively worse as a result of the economic damage caused by the lockdown. It is unrealistic to expect employers to take in and support learners after having reduced the number of employees to the bone to cope with the crippling impact of the virus. The fact is that it is not the role of employers to assist learners to obtain their qualifications and many employers don’t have the staff capacity or know-how to assist learners to meet qualification requirements.
Focus on large employers: The unintended consequence of the current SD system is that it mainly benefits large companies and public entities. These organisations have HR or Learning & Development staff for compiling WSPs, supporting training in qualifications for their staff and/or unemployed learners, providing workplaces for learners, and the time-consuming, bureaucratic processes of engaging with the SETAs. The smaller, innovative 4IR businesses generally don’t have the extra staff and don’t see much benefit in engaging with the system that isn’t geared to addressing their skills needs. Consequently, the SD system lacks sufficient input from these businesses, and the incentives and programmes that the SETAs promote don’t address these skills needs.
The power of small businesses in the economy
- “The real power of a successful economy does not lie in big corporates but in the thousands of small businesses led by entrepreneurs.” The estimate is that “small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) make up 90 percent of formal businesses; contribute roughly 34 percent towards Gross Domestic Product (GDP); and provide employment to about 60 percent of the labour force”. (Kerrin Land, June 2018)
- The 2018 study by the Small Business Institute found that about 250 000 Small, Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMMEs) constituted 98,5% of the number of formal firms in the economy, and accounted for 28% of formal jobs in the economy.
Supply- and demand-driven skills planning: Even before the COVID-19 lockdown started to damage much of the economy, there were indications of the mismatch in the SD system between the supply (graduates) and industry demand (employment). The large number of unemployed graduates must at least indicate that the training is not developing the skills needed by employers – especially as the SETAs’ research still identifies significant skills shortages. However, the problem may lie in the fact that these shortages are identified in terms of ‘hard to fill occupations’ in the OFO list, which does not reflect actual job roles.
Graduate unemployment statistics in 2019
- Statistics South Africa’s results for the first quarter of 2019 showed an unemployment rate of 31% among graduates up to the age of 24. This was an increase of 11,4 percentage points quarter-on-quarter compared to 19,5% in the 4th quarter of 2018.
- The database of the South African Council for Graduates Cooperative of 30 000 unemployed graduates, lists 20 008 from the TVET colleges to which the government and SETAs channel most of the funding for occupation-directed training.
- What needs to change?
Imperatives for structuring: The realities of 4IR and the economic impact of COVID-19 are strong imperatives for the restructuring of the SD system. Although there have been some adjustments to the system over the 22 years since the introduction of the Skills Development Act, a fundamental rethink is now required to ensure that the system is responsive to the new work and economic context.
The WEF stressed the urgency of systems-wide change.
“… business leaders across all industries and regions will increasingly be called upon to formulate a comprehensive workforce strategy ready to meet the challenges of this new era of accelerating change and innovation. Policy-makers, educators, labour unions and individual workers likewise have much to gain from deeper understanding of the new labour market and proactive preparation for the changes underway. Key factors to consider include mapping the scale of occupational change underway and documenting emerging and declining job types; highlighting opportunities to use new technologies to augment human work and upgrade job quality; tracking the evolution of job-relevant skills; and, finally, documenting the business case for investment in retraining, upskilling and workforce transformation. (2018: 7)
Recognise learning achievements in 4IR skills: The current SD system includes multi-level quality assurance processes geared towards awarding credits to learners for learning achievements that are clearly specified in qualifications, part-qualifications or unit standards registered on the NQF. While not disputing the value of this system, it has four main disadvantages.
- It has created a national ‘consensus’ that only learning that results in credits on the NQF has any value.
- It restricts SETA as well as public and private funding (and B-BBEE points) to credit-bearing programmes.
- It slows down training in 4IR skills that have to be forced into a mould in which they don’t fit.
- It prevents national recognition for 4IR skills acquire outside the formal credit-recognition system.
There is still value in the current system in which qualifications are developed, registered and delivered through more traditional methodologies – although blended and online learning will increase. However, the system must be redesigned to accommodate completely new ways of teaching and learning that will be the norm by 2025, along with other forms of national recognition for learning achievements, e.g. through digital credentialing or badges – as is being adopted internationally.
There are “opportunities that advances in digital technology will create for transforming education and training systems, including building new credentialing methods and systems that can capture, recognize and validate a broader range of learning outcomes in the era of lifelong learning. … Digital learning records and open data sources are complementing traditional qualifications repositories, while challenging the conventional models of credential evaluation”. (UNESCO, 2018: 5)
Make provision for the needs of 4IR and smaller businesses: The system must be redesigned to accommodate the skills needs of innovative 4IR businesses, SMEs and even SMMEs. These organisations are generally more loosely structured and less permanent. The training of their employees doesn’t qualify for SETA grants or B-BBEE points and – most importantly – their skills needs are not addressed in the qualifications, part qualifications or unit standards registered on the NQF. This will also require changes to the SETA and government funding for occupation-directed training that is geared towards NQF-aligned programmes, with minor exceptions. The Draft NPC report (2020: 21) acknowledges that the “system lost some of its ability to be flexible and responsive”.
Address the skills needs of the existing workforce: Reskilling and upskilling the existing workforce in 4IR skills must also be a priority and the training in these skills will not need to be aligned to registered qualifications. In this respect, professional bodies need to recognise 4IR skills that are acquired through work and informal learning for Continuing Professional Development (CPD) – not only professional development through formal training or structured events.
“… it is critical that businesses take an active role in supporting their existing workforces through reskilling and upskilling … and that governments create an enabling environment, rapidly and creatively, to assist in these efforts. … By 2022, no less than 54% of all employees will require significant re- and upskilling.” (WEF, 2018: v & ix)
Adapt the teaching and learning models: The 4IR world of work requires a completely different way of learning because the skills needs will be unpredictable and continuously changing, as new disruptive technologies thrust us into the unknown. Learning will have to be in real time through just-in-time, short, rapid-fire interventions that are designed on-the-run to enable workers to solve problems for which no theory or model exists. The 2 to 3-year process of developing and registering qualifications on the NQF is simply not geared towards developing 4IR skills. Most of the knowledge that learners will have acquired after three or more years of study will be irrelevant by the time they graduate and are confronted with technologies that weren’t even conceptualised when the qualifications were designed.
“According to some the half-life of skills is also diminishing fast, with some skills having only an 18-month window. Knowledge and skills now have such a short shelf-life that it is frequently said that a college degree will be out of date before the loan is paid off.” (Modern Workplace Learning 2020)
Scrap the OFO in the WSP and QCTO model: We must now accept that the OFO is not the appropriate instrument for collecting information on skills needs – and it should certainly not be used to develop qualifications for very specific occupations. Together with scrapping the OFO in the WSP we need an objective, external review of the occupational qualifications model of the QCTO. This model has resulted in a proliferation of qualifications (named Occupational Certificates) which are developed for occupations on the OFO.
The result of this model is demonstrated in four completely separate qualifications that have been registered on the NQF for bus, taxi, train and truck drivers – despite the obvious similarities in the knowledge and practical skills of these drivers. There are also five full qualifications for footwear machinery operators whose jobs will probably be replaced by robots. (List of registered Occupational Certificates:
Consider alternative occupation-directed qualification models: The review of the SD system must re examine the decision to replace all ‘legacy qualifications’ with the QCTO model, as employers still consider many of those qualifications to be relevant. The value of the previous SAQA-approved ‘nested’ qualification model should also be researched as it made provision for a generic core and elective streams in different areas of specialisation. For example, one qualification had core generic, entry-level management requirements together with electives for the unique requirements of the banking, mining, security and other work contexts. The core modules of such a qualification could cover the 4IR skills that will be essential across industries, alongside electives relating to different industries, thereby reducing the number of separate qualifications.
This model was discontinued with the adoption of the QCTO model in which separate qualifications are developed for closely related occupations (e.g. vehicle drivers), despite obvious commonalities in their skills needs.
Rethink the skills planning process and the WSP: The WSP is too cumbersome, the information it produces is not reliable or verified and does not reflect the skills needs of all types of businesses – especially not those of the 4IR and smaller businesses. The simple fact is that the more information employers are required to submit in the WSP, the greater the resistance to completing the form, or just completing it thoughtlessly for compliance sake to qualify for the Mandatory Grant. Although some SETAs do evaluate and analyse data in the WSPs submitted, more seem to rely on external research to identify the skills needs and trends in the sector.
A simplified needs analysis – that is not based on OFO occupations – should ask essential questions on employee’s skills needs and the training plans to address those: What skills does your organisation need now and in the foreseeable future? What training or other types of learning interventions will develop these skills? How can the SETA assist the industry to develop those skills? What funding incentives will help the industry to be more competitive?
Address the problem of work experience in qualifications: The Occupational Certificates in the QCTO qualifications model include compulsory Work Experience modules with Knowledge and Practical Skills modules.
While these three relate to components of competence, the Work Experience modules are an obstacle to learners who cannot find employers where they can complete these modules. This is really problematic in rural areas and small towns where there are limited work opportunities, particularly in the specific occupations for which these qualifications are developed, e.g. Solar Photovoltaic Service Technician, Chemist (Surface Coatings Technologist), Electrical Substation Operations Technician (Power System Controller) and Wind Turbine Service Technician. As mentioned earlier, completing work experience is also a problem in most qualifications offered by the TVET colleges. The result is that thousands of learners remain partly qualified and still unemployed. As businesses reduce staff, streamline processes and focus expenditure on survival strategies, or close down due to the lockdown, there will be even less work placement opportunities for learners to complete their studies.
The integration of learning and work will become even more important in the 4IR world of work. Therefore, appropriate models will have to be explored, however, they should not include work experience inside qualifications. That model might work in other countries, but it is not working in the South African context – and is certainly not benefitting the many partly-qualified learners who cannot find work placement.
- Recommendations from experts
South African and international experts have given clear and practical guidelines on the changes that need to be made.
► “Education needs a total ‘face-lift’; the entire education environment, from pre-school to post-graduate education, needs to be re-imagined and aligned with emerging skills requirements.” (NEDLAC, 2019: 108)
► “The Fourth Industrial Revolution is heavily knowledge-based and requires overwhelmingly new competencies. Therefore, education policies are of utmost importance. Education systems need to react quickly on developments in the knowledge space, they need to be redesigned to allow for lifelong learning.” (Lee et al., 2018: 9)
► “Public institutions need to proactively prepare for educational challenges … and updating regulatory frameworks to support new types of work and workers and a more entrepreneurial economy.” (Deloitte, July 2017: 43)
► “… policy-makers, regulators and educators will need to play a fundamental role in helping those who are displaced repurpose their skills or retrain to acquire new skills and to invest heavily in the development of new agile learners in future workforces by tackling improvements to education and training systems, as well as updating labour policy to match the realities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” (WEF, 2018: ix)
In restructuring the post-school skills development system, policy makers in the Department of Higher Education and Training, the QCTO and SETAs will need to work with industry, professional bodies and other stakeholders to make the changes necessary to prepare the workforce for the 4IR economy. This will require rethinking the assumptions and ingrained beliefs underlying the current system, exploring new paradigms and models and restructuring the SD system so that it is fit-for-purpose to prepare the current and future workforce for the rapidly changing and unpredictable world of work.