• 20 Oct 2016
  • SBS-ED
  • 7Min

Skills planning for the disruptive Fourth Industrial Revolution

Skills planning for the disruptive Fourth Industrial Revolution

The world of work of 2020 and beyond will be significantly different from the workplace most of us know today. Therefore, it is crucial for business leaders to understand the major shifts to ensure that they have their skills planning and other strategies in place to survive the turbulence of the next five to 10 years.

Similarly, the government, the Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) and other policymakers must rethink the skills strategies that are, according to futurist Jacob Morgan, failing to prepare the workforce for the “exponential pace of change [that is] disrupting every industry in every country [and] impacting every aspect of how we work and how we live, creating threats and opportunities”. 

The future world of work

The World Economic Forum (WEF) points out that “across all industries, there is clear evidence that the technologies that underpin the Fourth Industrial Revolution are having a major impact on businesses”. 

These disruptive technologies are no longer science fiction. Robots climb and maintain wind turbines, with nine robots replacing 140 workers. A 3D printer builds a footbridge using robotic arms and lasers without the help of human hands or concrete foundations.

Ford is road testing driverless cars. And Singapore is the first country to have driverless taxis, using technology that will disrupt the transport industry.

Technology has catapulted us into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which the WEF describes as:

characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. … these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance. … business leaders and senior executives need to understand their changing environment, challenge the assumptions of their operating teams, and relentlessly and continuously innovate. 

World Economic Forum (WEF)

In South Africa, we will have to address the two main barriers to adapting to these disruptions as identified by the WEF : 

  • Insufficient understanding of disruptive changes (68%); and
  • A workforce strategy that is not aligned to innovation strategy (44%).

Skills development

​​Key questions that we need to consider in relation to skills development are: 

  • How must we reconceptualise training for occupations if some occupations will disappear or change significantly by the time students graduate?
  • How do we prepare the workforce for multiple career changes that cut across occupational boundaries?
  • What skills sets will the workforce need to thrive in the ‘Age of Unreason’ with erratic change that no longer follows a predictable pattern?
  • What should we be teaching if what is taught becomes outdated within a year or two?
  • How do we equip people with the skills they will need to use technology that has not been conceptualised yet?
  • What assumptions about skills development are preventing us from preparing the workforce for a workplace exponentially disrupted by new technology?

Technology-driven changes 

Disruptive technologies are already having a significant impact on the workplace. These changes will become widespread:

  • New jobs will emerge that we cannot now imagine.
  • Existing occupations will disappear or be significantly altered. 
  • There will be fewer permanent employer-employee relationships as a large part of the workforce moves into short-duration jobs, requiring flexible and multi-skilled workers.
  • With the end of one-job-for-a-lifetime, the workforce changes jobs more frequently, and moves comfortably across occupational boundaries. 
  • More work will be done by cross-functional project teams working together in temporary relationships in virtual organisations. 
  • Fixed job descriptions will become obsolete and employees will be required to perform functions outside their former job descriptions.

Are we training people for a world that no longer exists?

We can scarcely argue with the predictions of Scott McLeod, Karl Fisch and other futurists: We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet. …

The amount of new technical information is doubling every 2 years. By 2010 it [was] predicted to double every 72 hours. For students starting a 4-year technical degree this means that half of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study. 

For more predictions, watch the video

My main concerns about our training system are that:

  • Many occupational qualifications are preparing the workforce for occupations that will not exist in five years’ time, or will be radically different.
  • Many qualifications are outdated by the time the first cohort of students graduate.
  • The system is not equipping people with the skills they will need to succeed in the work environment that will be significantly transformed by disruptive technologies.
  • The SETA grants and public funding do not incentivise employers to support the kind of training that is essential to prepare the workforce for 2020 and beyond.
  • Education and training primarily focuses on training people for jobs – not for work, and we are not creating enough entrepreneurs.
  • The obsession with training for credits on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) and points on the B-BBEE Scorecard means that training is not primarily focused on developing the skills needed to “relentlessly and continuously innovate”.

Changes required in skills development system

We have to develop less cumbersome mechanisms for preparing the workforce for the future – either in addition to or in place of the current occupational qualifications model adopted by the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO). Furthermore, the system must prepare the workforce to move more easily across occupations – rather than training them for specific occupations on the Organising Framework for Occupations (OFO), such as a Nurse (Aged Care) or a Nurse (Mental Health).

Companies that want to survive and thrive in 2020 cannot adopt strategies that focus primarily on credits, SETA grants or B-BBEE points. The new workplace requires more short interventions that are conceptualised ‘on the run’ to develop the specific skills workers require to apply unfamiliar disruptive technologies to innovative projects.

 SETA funding priorities and discretionary grant structures must make provision for such skills interventions if the government and SETAs are serious about sector competitiveness, creating more work opportunities, investment, and economic growth. In addition, more funding and support must be provided to equip people to create their own work, instead of preparing them for the job market. 

What are the new skills required in 2020?

The WEF predicts that more than 35% of the skills considered important in today’s workforce will have changed within five years. Some of the new skills that the Institute for the Future identifies as essential for the workplace of 2020 are:

  • Novel and adaptive thinking: proficiency in coming up with solutions and responses beyond those which are by rote or rule-based;
  • Computational thinking: the ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning in order to make sense of this information;
  • Transdisciplinarity: literacy in and the ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines;
  • Cognitive load management: “the ability to discriminate and filter information for importance, and to understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques”; 
  • Virtual collaboration: the ability to work productively and drive engagement as a member of a virtual team; and 
  • Technological literacy and technical entrepreneurial skills: the capacity for a new partnership with the new smart machines that will enter offices, factories and homes.

Employers, SETAs, government and policy makers must heed the warnings of the experts to review South Africa’s strategies for preparing the workforce for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. These reviews will have to initiate substantial changes to strategies and programmes to equip the workforce for the unpredictable and disruptive technology-driven world of work that we will be entering within the next five years.


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