SA will lose 5.7 million jobs if not digitally ready in 7 years

With 35 percent of all jobs in South Africa (almost 5.7 million jobs) currently at risk of total digital automation within a mere 7 years, the country could see a crippling effect compounded by a fragile economy and growing unemployment.

Book keeping, accounting and auditing clerks have the highest risk of automation. It’s not just manual labour jobs.

Dr Roze Phillips, Post Graduate Diploma in Futures Studies alumnus from the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) and Managing Director for Accenture Consulting in Africa says that the country needs to act now to ensure that humans and machines can work together in the future. Dr Phillips presented at a Leader’s Angle hosted today (16 April) held at USB.

“Our research shows that if South Africa can double the pace at which its workforce acquires skills relevant for human-machine collaboration, it can reduce the number of jobs at risk from 3.5 million (20%) in 2025 to just 2.5 million.”

“With the threat of automation growing, South Africa is less prepared than other countries and needs to give its workforce skills to participate in the digital economy. In a country with a staggering 27.7% unemployment and jobless youths making up 75% of unemployment, the future looks bleak.”

Dr Phillips says job transition is not new. In the pursuit of higher productivity at lower cost options, jobs have for many years been shed.

“In recent times, many manufacturing and standard business process intensive jobs were outsourced to countries where labour was cheaper. Those jobs rarely made it back to home soil but at least outsource recipient countries benefitted from the employment opportunities created there. Today, the same phenomenon occurs. But now, the search for labour arbitrage is no longer between physical geographies; today, jobs are lost to the digital world and will, in all probability, never be done by humans again.”

She says that in a country like South Africa where poverty remains, rates of unemployment are high and social security questionable, it’s vital for the country to upskill its people to collaborate with machines to enhance their own productivity, not job losses.

“Machines do not consume things and whilst they can replace human work, they do not drive purchasing behaviour or contribute to GDP. Society will regress if humans can’t work, earn and spend. South Africa needs to learn how to ‘run with machines’.”

Which jobs in South Africa are the most at risk?

Book keeping, accounting and auditing clerks have the highest risk of automation says Dr Phillips. It’s not just manual labour jobs.

Her company Accenture researched various job categories drawn from Stats SA to gain insight into human-like (analytical, leadership, social intelligence, creative) and machine-like activities (routine work, transactions, manual labour) taking into account the type of work, skills and tasks, the recent skills evolution in jobs, degree of work automation, work supply demographics and productive structure.

“The results clearly show that occupations that allocate more time to human-like activities have a lower probability of automation while workers involved in occupations such as production, office administration, tellers, cashiers, farming, food preparation, accounting, auditing, insurance claims and policing processing clerks, construction, mining, transportation, installation and maintenance are at highest risk.”

Both white- and blue-collar jobs are at risk. The more predictable and repetitive the activities that make up the tasks, the more likely it is to be replicated by machines or automated. The safest jobs are those that require influencing and advising people, teaching, programming, real-time discussions, negotiating and cooperating with co-workers.

Dr Phillips says that although the research seems to paint a gloomy picture, the opportunity for South Africa is considerable.

“Digital technology will usher in a new economic era, exposing new sources of value and growth, increasing efficiency and driving competitiveness. For South Africa to rise to the challenge the country needs to recalibrate its economy and its workforce for digital, creating entirely new products, services and markets. And the time to do that is now.”

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