Faster skill training could halve the number of jobs threatened by automation

25 April 2018 4 min. read
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Accenture’s position on the impact of automation on the jobs market is that a new breed of hybrid jobs will emerge, at the intersection between manual and automated labour. By quickening the process of skill adaptation to this new paradigm, the portion of jobs at risk in South Africa could drop from over 30% to less than 15% by 2025, according to a new report from the firm. 

Tech firms across the globe are doing their best to dispel the fear that has amassed around automation. As artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning techniques become more advanced, individuals with repetitive and relatively predictable tasks have come to worry for their relevance in years to come.

The loss of jobs to automation is a reality, although tech firms argue that it might not have to be all bitter. Last week, Accenture’s Management Consulting Lead for Africa, Roze Phillips, proclaimed that the best way to tackle the threat of automation is to evolve in tandem with it. A new report from Accenture has substantiated this claim.

According to the report, titled ‘Creating South Africa’s Future Workforce,’ technology has historically disrupted the status quo with its advancement, but human beings and their ability to earn and consume are what drive economic progress, which would make the disengagement of millions across the world a devastating scenario.

Jobs with risk of automation by country

Instead, the report argues that individuals who lose out to automation will have a whole new set of jobs to engage in – ones that involve co-working with machines. What most employees now need to work on is the development of skills to become eligible for these jobs.

South Africa is one market that could do without the loss of more jobs. The unemployment rate for the entire population stands exceptionally high at 28%. 50% of South Africa’s population is under 30, which is a highly promising indicator for economic productivity, but worrying in light of the 36% youth unemployment rate. The youth constitutes 75% of South Africa’s unemployed population.

Accenture estimates that a staggering 5.7 million jobs are currently at risk from automation in South Africa, which amounts to 35% of all the jobs in the country. These are primarily the jobs in which 75% of the tasks can be carried out by machines, which are described by the report as being subject to “total automation.”

Based on this figure, South Africa is the country likely to face the heaviest job losses, behind only Brazil, where the share of jobs subject to total automation is as much as 46%. In the more developed countries such as Germany or the USA, which have total automation brackets of 24% and 17% respectively, automation poses a threat, but not to the same extent.

Rate of learning vs rate of automation

Nevertheless, the report emphasises the need to embrace the coming changes, highlighting the benefits that the digitisation of key processes can have. As per the firm’s analysis, incorporation of AI itself could increase productivity of any workforce by about 40% by 2035. When applied to South Africa, this growth in productivity would take the economy to twice its current size by as early as 2030.

In essence, there is a trade-off between nearly six million job losses and a doubling of the economy, which raises debates in the economic as well as the ethical realms. However, according to the report, this trade-off need not occur at all. Instead, a race must occur between the automation of tasks and the development of skills required to work in collaboration with machines.

The report’s key message is simple: “increasing the pace at which the workforce acquires the skills essential to maximise the benefits of human-machine collaboration.” South Africa needs to pit the rate of learning against the rate of automation, to ensure minimal damage to individuals' livelihoods.

By Accenture’s calculations, doubling the current rate of learning could reduce South Africa’s ‘total automation’ bracket of jobs from its current level of 35% (5.7 million jobs) to 14% (2.5 million jobs) by 2025.