Automation makes me mad!

By Adrian Schofield  FIITPSA


Sometimes, you read something that pulls you up short and you say to yourself, “What? Surely not! That can’t be right!” You go back and read it again…and again. Finally, you admit that you understood it correctly, but you are now sure that, if it is true, then something is seriously wrong.


The article from BusinessTech, republished in NGO Pulse this week (link), under the heading “The jobs in South Africa most at risk of total digital automation” made me stop and check that I understood what it said. Here are a couple of snippets:


With 35% of all jobs in South Africa – almost 5.7 million – currently at risk of total digital automation within a mere seven years, the country could see a crippling effect compounded by a fragile economy and growing unemployment.”


“‘Our research shows that if South Africa can double the pace at which its workforce acquires skills relevant for human-machine collaboration, it can reduce the number of jobs at risk from 3.5 million (20%) in 2025 to just 2.5 million.’”


The first number that made me blink was 5,7 million – more than one third of all jobs at risk within 7 years? Surely not! The second number that raised at least one eyebrow was 3,5 million – why has the “at risk” number dropped by 2,2 million? The one that got both eyebrows hopping was that the reduction in “at risk” jobs could be “to just 2,5 million”, as if putting this number of previously economically active people on the streets was in some way acceptable.


Without evidence, far be it from me to question the research that led Dr Roze Philips of Accenture to reach these conclusions. However, I do feel entitled to challenge the manner of its presentation. The author admits that South Africa’s economy is in a fragile state – expressing the threat to such a large proportion of the currently working population in this manner will only heighten the tensions in our society.


If you take a step back from the possibility of replacing jobs with digital automation and look hard at the probability of it happening in South Africa over the next six or seven years, I believe you will come to a different conclusion. The loss of jobs or work opportunities in South Africa is far more likely to be the result of our depressed and badly managed economy than of sweeping digitalisation. Attributing the potential reduction in workforce to one factor merely brushes aside the greater reality.


Of course, we must immediately address the glaring gaps in South Africa’s education and training programmes. Of course we must look at the characteristics of economically active people. Incidentally, it is not about “jobs”. It’s about economically active roles, about adding value through a variety of creative and productive activities.


The challenge we all face is to take specific actions to turn South Africa around. The digital world should be helping us to do that.