South Africa’s fragile economy and growing unemployment could be further impacted by digital automation in just seven years, if the country fails to remedy the situation. This is according to Dr Roze Phillips, who holds a postgraduate diploma in futures studies, is an alumnus of the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) and the managing director for Accenture Consulting in Africa.
Phillips, speaking at USB’s Leader’s Angle event on Monday, said South Africa needed to act now to ensure humans and machines could work together in the future.
She said with 35 percent of all jobs in South Africa (nearly 5,7 million) at risk of total digital automation within just seven years, the country could see a crippling effect – compounded by a fragile economy and growing unemployment.
Phillips said it was not just manual labour jobs that were at risk, as bookkeeping, accounting and auditing clerks had the highest risk of automation.
“Our research shows that if South Africa can double the pace at which its workforce acquires skills relevant to human-machine collaboration, it can reduce the number of jobs at risk from 3,5 million (20 percent) in 2025 to just 2,5 million,” she said.
“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 percent unemployment and jobless youths making up 75 percent of the unemployed, the future looks bleak.”
Phillips said in a country like South Africa, where the rate of unemployment was high, it was vital for the country to upskill its people to collaborate with machines to enhance their own productivity.
“Machines do not consume things, and whilst they can replace human work, they do not drive purchasing behaviour or contribute to GDP (gross domestic product). Society will regress if humans can’t work, earn and spend. South Africa needs to learn how to ‘run with machines’, ” she said.
Phillips said Accenture researched various job categories drawn from Statistics SA to gain insight into human-like and machine-like activities, 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.
She said results showed occupations that allocated more time to human-like activities had 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 – were at the highest risk.
“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,” Phillips said. – Cape Argus