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About 230 million jobs in sub-Saharan Africa will require digital skills by 2030, presenting investors and education operators with an estimated $130 billion opportunity to train the future workforce in digital mastery.

Countries often underinvest in human capital, as it may take time for these investments to pay off and they are more difficult to measure than physical investments. Yet the shifting frontier for skills makes it essential for some careful consideration as this frontier is moving rapidly and bringing both opportunities and risks.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 3-2019.
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A recent report by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), in cooperation with L.E.K. Consulting, shines a light on the importance of investing in human capital to develop the skill sets that will be required by the future workforce.

The report, Digital Skills in Sub-Saharan Africa: Spotlight on Ghana, highlights the influence of technology and automation on the future of work. It estimates that the future of work will look very different compared to the present and will require a changing set of skills; but countries are faced with an unprecedented challenge of updating education systems built for another era. They must confront this reality to prepare the next generation of learners for an evolving landscape with new kinds of jobs. The study further notes that there is an urgent demand for skills, including digital skills and socio-behavioural skills.

Technology is reshaping almost all aspects of humankind. It is connecting more people with global markets and changing patterns of production and consumption around the world. Automation is re-envisioning industries and services. This period of change, often referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, promises significant shifts in the way technology shapes sectors, society, and even biology. Parts of sub-Saharan Africa may not have fully realised the benefits of the Second and Third Industrial Revolutions. Still, they face an opportunity to leapfrog this past and compete in a new era of accelerated technological change.

Changing landscape in the workforce

Shifts are already beginning to influence the types of jobs and skills required in the market, and there is more change anticipated. It is anticipated that about 65% of children entering primary school today will end up working in a job that doesn’t yet exist. The advent of these wholly new jobs will also coincide with the decline of obsolete ones. Some of the key shifts influencing the landscape for jobs and skills include:

Increasing access to technology

In 2019, 55% of the world’s population is expected to have access to technology, up from 30% in 2010. The rates of mobile phone penetration are higher, at a projected 63% in 2019. While emerging markets are still less connected than developed markets, it is expected that this gap will be narrowed. Sub-Saharan Africa now has 22% internet penetration and 44% mobile penetration. Showing the most progress is Ghana with 35% and 67% penetration respectively. Internet penetration is expected to grow to 40% in sub-Saharan Africa by 2025 and 58% in Ghana by 2030. Growth of the global technology sector is a key source of jobs, as technician, developer, and engineering roles grow alongside the industry.

Disruption of production processes

Technology is challenging traditional boundaries of firms and expands global supply chains, enabling rural clusters to emerge that connect small and medium-sized enterprises to global opportunities. Technology also allows firms and production processes to either scale up or down quickly from full-time, year-round labour to project-specific requirements. This illustrates why wider learning of even basic digital skills can have real economic impact.

Emergence of online platforms enabling entrepreneurship and gigs

Marketplaces are dynamic and global. From platforms that enable short-term gigs to channels like YouTube that support artists, influencers and entrepreneurs, online work platforms now make it easier to complete tasks or participate in markets.

Businesses are expected to continue to expand their use of task-specialised contractors, potentially through decentralised operations. These changes will have an uncertain impact on unofficial jobs: some individuals may engage in contracts with formal sector companies, while others are likely to work more casually or off-book.

Shifting frontier between work tasks performed by people and those by machines

Automation is changing the demand for labour as technological advancement makes it possible for machines to do the jobs once performed by people. As this frontier shifts, so do global labour markets. Technology is expected to raise the demand for labour, but the expansion of new jobs and contraction of old jobs is likely to look different across sectors.

In South Africa, research estimates that 41% of all work activities could be automated, while in Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Kenya this is 44%, 46%, and 52%, respectively. Some jobs will likely disappear while others will become more highly valued depending on the industry. It is also the case that “most automation occurs at the level of specific work tasks, not at the level of whole jobs,” as stated in the WEF’s The Future of Jobs Report 2018.

Many projections about labour market changes are tied to automation and quantify the change in percentage of hours worked as opposed to the percentage of jobs gained or lost. However, predictions are variable and, according to the 2019 World Development Report, the “disparate effects of technology render the economic predictions of technology-induced job losses basically useless”.

Bridging the skills gap in Africa

The IFC report notes that employers across sub-Saharan Africa have cited lack of access to workers with appropriate skills as “a constraint to their growth and productivity”. In East Africa, over 40% of all firms in Tanzania and 30% of all firms in Kenya refer to inadequately skilled workforces as a major obstacle. Despite the growing demand for knowledge in science, technology, engineering and maths, college graduates with STEM degrees only represent 2% of Africa’s university age population.

This reflects an inherent mismatch between skills acquired through education and skills that are in demand. This mismatch may be exacerbated in coming years given the rapidly evolving skills requirement. Technical and vocational education is not being fully leveraged in sub-Saharan Africa.

Formal technical and vocational enrolment comprises just 6% of total secondary and post-secondary enrolment in the region. Ways of tying education to employment is through apprenticeships or internships that, as the World Bank Group’s World Development Report on the Changing Nature of Work highlighted, internship “links training to day-to-day experience and provides motivation through the promise of future economic returns”.

According to the IFC report, Ghana’s government recognises the importance of developing employment-focused technical and vocational institutions that will help its population find jobs in demand. Showing commitment to this strategy, in 2018 President Nana Akufo-Addo announced the government’s intention of building 20 more such institutions in the country, in addition to the existing 35 schools. Expansion in Ghana of post-secondary education, potentially through the participation of the private sector, is important to ensure that there are adequate institutions offering digital skills courses.

Recommendations in planning for a digitally skilled workforce

Digital skills feature prominently in 21st century skills frameworks and are core to concepts of future-ready education. Basic digital skills that are in high demand across all markets are computer literacy (ability to use a computer or smartphone) and email communication.

However, the IFC report notes that in order to execute future jobs, the workforce will require intermediate and advanced skills. Such skills include: digital marketing, social media analytics, web and graphic design, computer programmers, artificial intelligence experts, and data scientists. To bridge the already existing gap of these skills in the current labour market, the report suggests:

• Employers with the means to hire globally can look to other regions to fill essential gaps. The demand-supply gap for digital skills in Ghana is driving employers to recruit internationally. The report findings show that nearly 20% of Ghanaian companies recruit only internationally. Of these, nearly 70% do so because they cannot find skilled local talent.

• Employers can train existing employees or new recruits through digital skills training programmes that invest in their workforce. Industry participants confirm concerns that without adequate digital skills, countries in sub-Saharan Africa will fail to remain competitive. A lack of digital skills could constrain the growth of Africa’s economies and reduce productivity just as more industries need to adopt digital technologies to drive productivity. ESI

Acknowledgement

This article includes excerpts from the Digital Skills in Sub-Saharan Africa: Spotlight on Ghana report published by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), in cooperation with L.E.K. Consulting.

Visit the IFC website on www.ifc.org to download the full report.