As with all countries, African nations must continue their efforts to prepare their future work forces, through targeted, forward-looking education systems and better collaboration with the private sector.
The occurrence of a Fourth Industrial Revolution or "Industry 4.0" has been discussed and debated for a number of years now, gaining prominence and momentum at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2016. The first Industrial Revolution mechanised production using steam and water; the second used electricity to facilitate mass production; and the third was characterised by digitalisation. The fourth will build upon the revolution before it, leading to a blurring of the lines between the physical, digital and biological, with advanced digital technology such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, block chain, biotechnology, 3D printing and robotics rapidly progressing. This will change the nature of our jobs and the skills required to succeed in the labour market. Governments – and especially education systems – need to be prepared and willing to adapt and change to ensure they are not left behind.
Opportunities for Africa
Africa has the largest and youngest workforce in the world. By 2030 the African working-age population is set to increase by two-thirds, from 370 million adults in 2010 to over 600 million. In Sub-Saharan Africa it is estimated that 41% of all work activities will be susceptible to automation. In South Africa, 39% of the core skills required across industries will be entirely different by 2020.
In its 2017 report entitled "The Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa", the World Economic Forum (WEF) said that African nations need to develop "future-ready curricula that encourage critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence as well as accelerate acquisition of digital and STEM skills to match the way people will work and collaborate in the [Fourth Industrial Revolution]". This is not only necessary to adapt to the rapidly changing global landscape, but also to work towards the fulfilment of the fourth of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals – to ensure inclusive and quality education for all.
To enable this, more focus must be placed on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in schools, emphasising practical skills over theory and focusing upon computer literacy from an early age. However, the ability to succeed requires more than technical skills; it requires creativity, agility, emotional intelligence and problem solving. In other words, preparation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution requires a holistic approach.
However, preparing the young for Industry 4.0 is not something that educational institutions can do alone, and neither should it be. In countries where there is both a skills gap and a lack of access to resources to develop digital literacy and the required "soft skills", the role of business, as future employers, is vital. Collaboration amongst all key actors, i.e., government, educational institutions, civil society, unions and the private sector, is necessary to ensure that education and skill development is informed by and aligned with market demands.
Over the past few years there has been increasing recognition of the need for this kind of collaboration. For example, South Africa has announced the launch of a national public-private collaborative task force, the first of its kind developed under the World Economic Forum's Closing the Skills Gap project. This aims to build upon existing initiatives and ensure coordination between the two sectors. Another example is the corporate-sponsored African Girls STEM Camp, led by the Working to Advance African Women (WAAW) Foundation, which aims to attract girls between 13 and 17 into STEM disciplines, providing them with the opportunity to build renewable energy systems, and get to grips with basic computer science and app development.
However, the private sector does not need to wait for governments or non-profits to take the lead. The corporate-led annual Africa Code Week is a collaboration of more than 100 partners including local governments, non-profits, businesses and educational institutions, offering training in coding to both teachers and students. There are also examples of this on a smaller scale all over the continent, including specialised entrepreneurial technology schools; ad hoc practical workshops using fun experiments to introduce children to STEM careers at an early stage; and the establishment of digital hubs to build teacher capacity and facilitate student education.
A multi-stakeholder approach to preparing the youth of Africa for the next phase of global development is a trend that must continue; it is the key to unlocking the potential in a growing, ambitious work force and to making the most out of the challenges that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will bring. Now is the time for both governments and private actors to invest in Africa's future.