Turning the tide of unemployment through the 4th Industrial Revolution

Published On: 11 October 2021|

There is an urgent need to rethink what is to be done to get the unemployment rate – a staggering 64.4% of those aged between 15 and 24 are jobless – to an acceptable level. This is the view of Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the Acting Chair of Universities South Africa’s World of Work Strategy Group (WSG).

He was speaking at the 2nd USAf Higher Education Conference that was jointly hosted with the Council on Higher Education (CHE) to provide a platform for thought leadership and debates among higher education stakeholders, to identify solutions to burning higher education issues and to strategise around transforming South Africa’s universities into engaged and responsive institutions.

This was the largest Higher Education conference ever hosted in South Africa from 6 to 8 October. It attracted just under 2000 delegates.

The breakaway World of Work segment of the conference, themed Universities and the 4IR Labour Market; Technological Disruption was chaired by Professor Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer of USAf. He described Professor Marwala as a distinguished scholar whose multi-disciplinary research interests include the theory and application of artificial intelligence (AI) to engineering, computer science, finance, social science and medicine.

When Professor Marwala (left) was reminded to unmute — to begin his online presentation, he responded: “I hope someday we will develop a piece of technology which will know my intention to speak and unmute itself without any prompting.”

Unemployment: a national crisis

Thus, he began: “On Youth Day in 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa proclaimed that SA’s burgeoning youth unemployment rate was a national crisis. We didn’t need this declaration to confirm it. We’ve long heard the rolling statistics, and it takes little more than a stepping out of your gate to see the sheer levels of poverty and inequality rampant in our society.” This was the situation, he said, even before the CoViD-19 pandemic exacerbated it.

The latest statistics show that unemployment in South Africa is at an all-time high, at almost the 35% mark – although in the current economic climate, the figure is closer to 45%. “In fact, South Africa’s unemployment rate surged to the highest on a global list of 82 countries monitored by Bloomberg.”

Regarding a much-needed re-haul, the University of Johannesburg Vice Chancellor said this fed into some of the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) that was released in 2020 and adopted and gazetted by Cabinet.

Competitiveness is key

“To resolve unemployment, you have to deal with increasing the competitiveness of the South African economy – you cannot have one without the other,” he said. The Commission, he added, called for a re-design of human capacity development, to link the entire pool of potential employees with productive and decent work. “And, the leverage points which can be accelerated by the 4IR need to be identified.” Professor Marwala said because of the 4IR, education, is being redefined in many of the 26 South African universities in the sector.

Preparing for the labour market

“A host of speakers will elaborate on the role of the universities and the 4IR labour market against an ever-changing and uncertain context. This includes a labour market analysis and review as well as identifying some of the megatrends in the Post School Education and Training (PSET).” Borrowing from Professor Ahmed Bawa’s words said earlier this year, Professor Marwala said: “Clearly there are ways in which this higher education system can work better. It has an unacceptable throughput rate. Articulation with the World of Work can be improved and its capacity to fill the gap between research and innovation all require attention. Thinking of higher education as a site of investment rather than a site of expenditure shifts the national imagination of the scope of higher education.”

What needs to be done

Professor Marwala outlined some of the areas that needed to be addressed.

  1. Building human capacity: This was especially necessary in areas related to the 4IR. This included such areas as the internet-of-things, biotechnology, 3-D printing etc. He said: “This means that the idea of adult based education is no longer just directed at making people learn how to read or write; it now includes making them literate in these new technologies that are going to define our industry.”

  2. Consolidation: “As a nation, we need to consolidate the activities around the application of Artificial Intelligence in all areas of our economy. That includes (among others) areas such as manufacturing, agriculture and transportation. This is so we can modernise these industries, making them better able to respond to the issues of competitiveness. This, in turn, creates economic value that ultimately leads to resolving unemployment.

  3. Re-Industrialisation: South Africa has de-industrialised “for no other reason than because we are no longer competitive in many sectors”. He said that the only way South Africa will be able to ‘bring back competitiveness’ will be to invest in the technology of the 4IR. This should be in automation for our automotive – or any other –industry so that we can make them more competitive.

  4. Data: “It’s often been said that Data is the new oil. What we ought to do is to avail and secure data.” For example, he said that South African hospitals collected huge amounts of information/data. “If that is made available, people can build AI systems that can be used to modernise our health sector. Of course, that cannot be released without strict security measures being put in place. Issues of privacy are paramount, and have to be considered. (FaceBook in the US is currently engaged in issues of privacy.) We need to ensure that data is made available, but it is secured and protected.”

  5. Incentives: “When an economist was asked to summarise what drives economics in one word, he answered Incentives. When you have incentives, you have demand and supply. You also have all sorts of issues that are vital to make an economy dynamic. So we need to incentivise the adoption of these technologies.” He said the Chinese had come up with an idea of a special economic zone as an incentive scheme. He added that here in South Africa, a similar system has been adopted. However, he asked the question: “What is that special incentive that those economic zones are going to offer? Is it tax-based? Is it a dual sector model that makes it good for companies to invest? Whatever it is, we need to incentivise the use of these technologies if we have any hope of making our economy competitive.

  6. Infrastructure: “We have to talk about Spectrum for higher education. It’s very important in our research, in our ability to communicate with our students. Rather than just awarding it to telecommunications companies, I think the health sector must have its own Spectrum. I also believe that higher education must also have its own Spectrum. Regarding other infrastructure that will help improve connectivity, we need to get the universal services to create connectivity in those areas where the market forces are not able to do so.”

  7. Rules, Regulations, Laws and Guidelines: “I was part of a committee of the World Health Organisation in which we discussed the finalising guidelines of the implementation of Artificial Intelligence in medicine. All sectors of our economy require their own industry-specific guidelines. What we should do as a country is to get into implementation mode so that we can turn some of these ideas into viable economic possibilities.”

A paradigm shift

During a second WSG breakaway session titled Universities and the New Technology Moment and Society), Professor Marwala said the world as we once knew it has changed forever. The shift, he said, is not a once off, defined just by a pandemic, but rather a paradigm shift.

“The economic impact of the CoViD-19 pandemic has most accurately been felt in the sphere of unemployment and the rapid digitisation digitisation processes in operations,” he said. The professor said that while the 4IR meant that these changes were inevitable, it was the speed at which they needed to occur – because of the pandemic – that could not have been anticipated.

“Of course, this is ushering in another revolution. This is called economic singularity – where, as explained in physics, it becomes increasingly difficult to know what it going to happen to the world,” he said.

Against this backdrop, universities were being forced to pause and re-evaluate their roles and their approaches. He said that the CoViD-19 pandemic disrupted conventional and traditional modes of teaching and learning in higher education.
“This has had a powerful effect on the higher education landscape, signalling a number of important changes that will likely roll into the so-called post pandemic future.

“Today, with the hindsight of lessons learnt, we can begin conversations on how we harness the benefits of technology without displacing the important physical spaces of a traditional university,” Professor Marwala said. He told delegates that “universities as communities” were critical spaces for learning and demand has remained pivotal to making higher education about more than just buildings.

“This is a very important topic. We have spoken about re-imagining the learner and the university of the future for quite some years now and we now find ourselves during this fast-changing world.” He said that his belief was that this is the right direction to be heading in. It was his opinion that the university would have to be re-imagined in different forms as they increasingly change shape.

As he sees it:

  • They will become technological objects just like FaceBook, Twitter and other social media platforms.
  • Universities will become hubs of innovation as they grapple with the problems that are facing our society and increasingly take the form of innovation centres.
  • Universities will need to be integrated into a society that is no longer just in the physical space, but now also inhabits the digital or so-called cyber world.

“The ability of our universities to navigate this space will require reimagining in different forms. They will increasingly become evolving organisms and the reason for that is that the only constant we will experience in the next few years is change.”

Professor Marwala said he was reminded of a great Greek scholar who said: Nobody can ever cross the same river twice. When they return, it’s a different river as the water has flown on. “This concept of creating and adapting, involving the living organism called the university, is going to preoccupy leaders in higher education for a long time and it requires a different type of leadership,” he concluded.

This breakaway session was the first of three dedicated to the World of Work Strategy Group agenda. Following these deliberations on Universities and the 4IR Labour Market, the WSG also presided over two other breakaway sessions that explored the topics: Universities and the New Technology Moment and Society and Entrepreneurship and Modern Technologies in the Labour Market – Nexus Between Theory and Practice, respectively.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities SA.