Developing Skills Responsive to the Changing Labour Market

Published on 1st December 2020

On November 25, 2020, the 18th IREN Africa Resource Bank Forum kicked off, though virtually, under the theme: “Re-imagining Jobs and Skills in the Digitalization Era in Africa.” I was on the afternoon panel (13:30–14:30 EAT) moderated by Akisa Wandera of the Kenya Television Network (KTN), discussing how to develop skills to be responsive to the changing labour market. Lecturers and students drawn from Kenyan universities participated, Taita Taveta University well represented.

To re-emphasise my past pronouncement, COVID-19 has been a disruptive, distractive, destructive and distancing disease. Africa’s educational and training models must adapt to the pandemic accordingly. COVID-19 has been a watershed dividing our era into brand new epochs with interestingly new meanings: Before Corona (BC) and Anno Remedio (AR) — after finding a lasting remedy for the pandemic as already heralded by the rising hopes for effective vaccines from the USA, Germany, Russia, and the UK.

The African Youth and Diaspora Agenda

Remotopia or remote working is gaining currency and prominence, giving the gig economy a major boost. The future of Africa in the post-pandemic period cannot be divorced from the youth agenda and the accompanying labour market demographics and digital transformation shaping today’s borderless marketplace. Africa must train her youth for the global competition, which is increasingly becoming borderless in a digital and hyperconnected world receptive of multilateralism.

The classical perspective on brain drain, which I have been opposed to, assumes that physical absence from home country is equivalent to loss of human capital. My counterintuitive position is that the digital revolution and the virtual collaborative telepresence it brings about together increase the chances of benefiting more from Africa’s highly skilled diaspora, mainly through knowledge and technology transfer. Remittances alone, at best, only represent a limited account of the multiple streams of revenue shaping the changing landscape of economic development in today’s hyperconnected world.

The unemployment challenge and skills gap are part of the broader problem whose roots can be traced to chronic failures in thought leadership, planning and political goodwill. Tremendously, and rightly so, panelists from the academia could hardly spare the government tough blame for these failures, particularly the ministries in charge of labour and economic planning.

The Skills Gap and the Rightful Place of Universities

Since June 2019 when I pronounced “drops of skills in an ocean of academic qualifications” in Fiji at The Pacific Skills Summit, it has become my signature expression of the predicament facing regions where educational models are still mainly an enterprise in the mass production of academic papers acquired through formal exam-oriented processes ingrained in a worldview of linear career growth trajectories. This trend is in sharp contrast to the desired shift to timely talent management and lifelong skills development models, anchored on a broad knowledge base to support flexibility and adaptive resilience.

The post-pandemic world, realising an increasing uptake of digitalisation and automation, needs more of non-linear thinking and creativity to produce innovative and solution-oriented thinkers who can address today’s increasingly complex and interconnected global development problems. This is a major challenge that will continue to face learning institutions in Africa beyond the COVID-19 curve.

Not spared the aggressive grit of the skills development challenge are universities, being the de jure boiling point of the knowledge evolution cycle. As such, universities are expected to discharge impactful and sustainable solutions for the evolving society-economy-environment nexus. To equip graduates to be change-makers and adaptive innovators who can impact society meaningfully, the 4E combination of education, empathy, exposure, and experience should have started attaining maturity at university level.

An early start to identifying and developing talents right from the primary-school level, however, remains critical to supplying colleges and universities with promising trainees. Knowledge workers are among the best positioned groups to reap optimal benefits from the gig revolution. Universities are the ultimate factory for producing such knowledge workers to enhance cutting-edge research and development. Nonetheless, not all key focus should shift to university education; a market-driven model must be the basis for deciding the pragmatic share of producing different cadres of skilled workers.

Well-funded inter-university research consortia are more than just a good idea; they are the quintessential building blocks of a knowledge- and innovation-driven Africa. If the hitherto demonstrated role of the universities in finding effective COVID-19 vaccines is anything to go by, then Africa’s educational policies have to empower universities to attain the integrated critical mass needed to impact society through research and innovation outcomes. The silos — the commonplace disparate research feats by individual researchers and universities, need to be aggregated through conducive policies, partnerships, and sustainable funding. Political goodwill for research also needs to be demonstrated in the way African governments consolidate key human capital from universities to calibrate COVID-19 containment policies and strategies.

Towards a Market-Centric Skills Development Model

Africa is a continent of diversity, with heterogenous societies. The wealth and innovation potential hidden in the basic pillars of agriculture, infrastructure, health, and basic education are still largely unattended to or unexploited. Since flexibility, adaptive resilience, and agility are key ingredients for staying relevant in a world experiencing a fast-changing technology marketplace, educational models that equip young learners in basic schools with a broad foundation of knowledge and exploratory curiosity should be the first choice for Africa’s multifaceted development challenges.

In terms of market-ready skills for industry, the pyramid must be upright and broader at the base. This analogy communicates the compelling case for technical and vocational education and training (TVET). TVET is the generator of the diversified skill sets we need to boost Africa’s development by addressing the basics of food security, energy security, and water security. For example, a suitable model proffers that one engineer needs the support of three technologists; one technologist in turn needs the support of four technicians. The base of the pyramid cannot survive if all the growing attention shifts to acquiring academic degrees. Regrettable it is that this has been the latest trend in Africa as the middle class promotes a worldview of success pegged on university qualifications and white-collar jobs.

Key agenda promotive of blue- and green-collar workers must now be pushed from the marginal to the mainstream attention of Africa’s education and training policies. As postgraduate university studies explore the “why”, it must be noted that all “why” questions still need the “how” to address the “what” at the right “when” and “where”. To address all these questions, apprenticeship, vocational training, indigenous knowledge, and local experiences must be part of the solution matrix. Therefore, all levels of multidisciplinary education — both formal and informal, deserve full government attention and support. Multidisciplinary training for upcoming knowledge workers and skills for interdisciplinary collaboration are gaining momentum in a post-pandemic world that has yet to incur any diminishing returns on technological innovation.

The Future of Work and Labour Productivity in a Sharing Economy

Co-creating and reinventing the post-pandemic future is the fast lane to shaping the future we want as opposed to having to tolerate and manage the future imposed on us externally.

Desmond Dickerson, Manager, Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work, has acknowledged in the World Economic Forum that remotopia, green jobs, the gig revolution, and automation are rewriting the manuals in a post-pandemic world. “Organizations have an opportunity now to shape the future they want rather than simply manage the future that comes”. This means that co-creating and reinventing the post-pandemic future is the fast lane to shaping the future we want as opposed to having to tolerate and manage the future imposed on us externally. In the systems-thinking lingo, this would constitute the so-called System-as-Cause Thinking, whereby we have to challenge ourselves by interrogating to what extent we have been responsible for our own vulnerabilities to external shocks, as we feed the very weaknesses resident within our internal controls.

COVID-19 has proven the wide possibility of reaping enhanced labour productivity outside the traditional travel to work and office settings. There was general agreement among the panelists at the 18th Africa Resource Bank Forum that remote working has made them more productive, time-conscious, tech savvy, and globally aware. There has been increasing uptake of technology in ensuring a democratised, fair, transparent, and accurate performance appraisal based on measurable key performance indicators.

In the post-COVID era, the erstwhile norm of incurring massive expenditure of resources on travels and face-to-face conferences and meetings will come across as unwarranted wastage. Frugal options will be the natural choice. In the following paragraphs, a Kenyan example has been used to demonstrate how a lecturer working 350 km away from his family but travelling to be with the family every weekend can save more than 50,000 USD annually in both direct costs and indirect costs by utilising transport-related sharing economy models.

From experience, Kenyan lectures – a good number of whom have their families in the capital, Nairobi, had been used to driving themselves out of Nairobi to lecture and return to their families for the weekend reunion. Using a familiar example, of Taita Taveta University, located some 350 km from Nairobi, the associated direct costs would include expenditure on fuel and car maintenance due to the incurred mileage. The common expenses associated with a standard saloon car have been used in this example. Compared to connecting using Uber taxi then travelling by train from Nairobi at the current rates of 7 USD (economy class) or 20 USD (first class), the direct annual savings would range 1,800 – 3,000 USD. If the lecturer decides not to own a car, given reliable Uber taxi and train services, an additional saving on car insurance of about 500 USD would easily arise. 

The indirect costs are much more amazing, since an accomplished lecturer would also be a consultant, a knowledge leader. The same person has to forgo productive hours by self-driving the 350 km, complete with stressing instances of traffic jam. An average of six hours, one way, or 48 hours for four weeks in a month, would be the result. The opportunity cost may be estimated using a modest hourly compensation rate of only 100 USD for a research consultancy team headed by such a highly qualified consultant. Based on these assumptions, the total amount that would be accruing to the consultant (lecturer) and the lean team he leads or mentors is a whopping 54,800 – 56,500 USD in a year. 

The opportunities in the gig economy and such a sharing economy model would, therefore, boost the productivity of knowledge workers and their teams by shunning the huge indirect costs associated with time lost to daily physical activities such as driving to work stations. The margins can only go higher if remote working makes up for most of the face-to-face sessions that made travelling a routine necessity in the pre-COVID era. 

Finally, key challenges and opportunities still accompany the future of work. As a result, the demand for adaptive and transferrable skill sets is on the rise. Worth repeating here are the stylised facts and key skills development challenges and opportunities of the post-COVID era.

Key Challenges

Stylised Fact: Automation and thinking machines are progressively replacing human labour.

· 65% of primary school entrants today will handle completely new jobs, hitherto unknown (The Future of Jobs and Skills, World Economic Forum).
· Achieving an optimal mix of manned and unmanned/automated workflows will be a key focus area.
· Lifestyle ramifications of the future of work such as isolation, increase in sedentary lifestyle devoid of the “water cooler effect” and the implications for cumulative social capital will grow in importance and urgency.

Key Opportunities

Stylised Fact: Automation is creating more new jobs than the ones it is decimating.

· The World Economic Forum has reported that for every two jobs lost to automation, three new jobs are created. This reinforces the need for reskilling, upskilling, and deep-skilling in the face of the rapidly reducing half-life of skills.
· New scholarship options and jobs are emerging, e.g. optimal workflow programmers to match humans with machines.
· The digital transformation is a boon for knowledge and distant workers in the diaspora (hence the academia) in the new gig economy model. As efficient public mass transit solutions such as fast trains and the sharing economy model leveraged by digital platform services such as Uber and Airbnb gain a footing in Africa, labour productivity, resource savings, and economic vibrancy are expected to rise.

· Once machines learn from training data, they don’t forget as human beings do. Accuracy, precision and transparency gains are expected thus.

· Automation is helping to free up the human brain from routine tasks to focus more on the tasks that require creativity and complex problem-solving. Automated journalism by the Associated Press and The New York Times, equity research reports in the banking sector initiated by banks such as Commerzbank, are sterling examples.
Outlook on Skills Development for a Post-COVID Africa

The post-pandemic world, hence Africa, needs to rethink new workplace compensation contracts that are alive to the realities of the digital and gig revolution. New reward models will need to factor in revised incentives, mandates, responsibilities, and expectations. The example of a recent ruling in the UK favouring the growing and critical constituency of gig workers in terms of labour laws and policies is a fitting example for labour ministries and organisations in Africa.

In a borderless and digitally connected world supporting seamless knowledge sharing more than ever before, regarding diaspora skills as lost assets is a myopic and retrogressive worldview. African nations must promote innovative policies that will see their scholars and highly skilled nationals in the diaspora remotely contributing to national development through enhanced knowledge and technology transfer, far beyond mere remittances.

Education and training policies must ensure quality control and curricula that facilitate early talent management and a broad-based foundation to allow for flexibility, resilience, and easier adaptability to the divergent and non-linear career growth pathways befitting a world of rapid technological changes — with heavy demands on upskilling, reskilling, and deep-skilling depending on evolving assignments and expectations.

All the stages of learning must augment formal education with additional crucial elements of exposure to industry and cross-cultural awareness, empathy, and progressive acquisition of practical experience. TVET is a critical part of meeting the growing skills deficit and broadening the base of the pyramid for a stable development model.

Ultimately, relevant and lifelong skills development for Africa rests on timely supportive measures and long-term structural collaboration between government, industry, and learning institutions.

By Nashon Adero

Nashon Adero is a youth mentor under Kenya’s Presidential Digital Talent Programme and a lecturer in the School of Mines and Engineering, Taita Taveta University, Kenya. He was a panelist at the 18th IREN Africa Resource Bank Forum.

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