South Africans wary of job automation, and willing to retrain

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53% of South Africa’s workforce are threatened by perceived risk of job automation, and 77% are willing to retrain, according to a survey of 209 000 People in 190 Countries and 1 421 in South Africa.

According to the new study by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and The Network, including local partner organisation CareerJunction, the interest in developing new skills amongst South Africans is highest among those in the early- and midcareer phases as 40% of respondents are reporting a negative impact on their work due to the effect of COVID-19 on employment, including a decrease in working time or being laid off, versus the average of 36% of global respondents. Highly educated South Africans and the older generation are the most negatively impacted groups in terms of COVID-19 and its effect on their employment status, which is the exact opposite than the global trend.

This report is based on the study, Decoding Global Reskilling and Career Paths, and is the third in a series of publications that BCG and The Network have issued about the pandemic’s impact on people’s work preferences and careers.

The economic uncertainty touched off by the pandemic comes at a time when workers in just about every field already have some level of concern about being replaced by technology. “South Africa is among the top countries with the highest perceived risk of job automation, with 53% of respondents saying that the risk of having their job automated has increased over the last year. This is more than the global average of 41% of respondents. Additionally, 31% of workers in the digitisation and automation fields have a significantly lower perceived risk of automation in South Africa than 46% globally,” says Rudi van Blerk, Principal and Recruiting Director at Boston Consulting Group, Johannesburg.

Increased concern is especially common among people who work at financial institutions or at insurance or telecommunications companies.

“The pandemic and the increasing speed of technological disruption have prompted people to question their chosen career paths,” said Rainer Strack, one of the authors of the study and a senior partner at BCG. “Almost seven in ten people say they are open to retraining that would allow them to switch to completely different job roles. This level of flexibility could help employers and governments that are worried about preparing their workforces for the future.”

Retraining willingness is highest among workers who have fared worst during the pandemic or have the most concern about automation. This includes workers in service-sector, customer service, and sales roles. Those in job roles seen as less vulnerable – health and medicine, social work, and science and research – generally aren’t as ready to switch careers.

There are some geographic differences in the willingness to retrain as well. People in developing economies, including many in Africa, are the most enthusiastic, with as many as three-quarters saying they would retrain to prepare themselves for a new job. Europeans and Americans have the lowest level of willingness, the study shows, but even in those geographies the proportion of people who say they would retrain is generally above 50%.

More than a third of people worldwide have been laid off or forced to work fewer hours during the COVID-19 crisis, according to the survey. The economic fallout has been worst for the young and least educated. Almost half of those under 20, and an equal proportion of people with only a high school degree, have lost income during the pandemic.

“In South Africa, although workers in the healthcare industry were least negatively impacted by COVID-19 in terms of their employment status, which is in line with global trends, workers in health and medicine as job roles were more negatively affected by a decrease in working time or by being laid off than their global counterparts, where we could observe an increase in working time,” states van Blerk.

“The pandemic is another reminder – after the 2008 financial crisis – that there are always going to be events that threaten economies and require workers to adjust,” said Kate Kavanagh, a co–managing director of The Network and a coauthor of the report. “Workers have come to accept that their only real job security lies in their adaptability, which sometimes means shifting roles or even careers.”

A move toward more stable fields

Digital and information technology top the list of potential next careers, probably because of the expanding opportunities in those areas and the generally high remuneration. For example, more than 20% of people currently working in artistic or creative jobs say they would retrain for a digital job, as do more than 20% of people currently working in consulting or media. Office and management jobs (such as marketing and human resources) are also seen as attractive next career steps, possibly because of the perceived ease of transitioning into those jobs for a variety of workers.

Workers have already been taking steps to upgrade their skills. “71% of workers in South Africa spend a significant time on learning, which is slightly more compared to 65% of global respondents. Learning among the younger generation is similar in South Africa to global trends,” van Blerk adds. “However, learning is more widespread in the older generation compared to their global counterparts, with 74% of South African respondents aged 51-60 years old and 60% of respondents above 60 years old who spend a significant time learning. This is higher than the global average of 54% and 53% respectively.”

The approach to learning has evolved, however. South Africans’ usage of mobile apps as a learning resource grew by almost 100% from 2018 versus 50% globally. This approach still trails on-the-job training – South Africa’s more common primary learning resource according to 77% of respondents, and independent study (65%), today’s most popular approaches to workplace learning, but in the era of the pandemic digital approaches have made inroads.

Additional insights from the report:

  • 77% of South African respondents are willing to retrain for a completely different job role versus global respondents’ figures of 68%.
  • Highly educated workers are less willing to retrain in South Africa (42% of respondents) than globally (59% of respondents).
  • Interestingly, 73% of workers in the IT and Technology sectors are more willing to retrain to a different job role in SA (59% of global respondents).

(The data gathered for Decoding Global Reskilling and Career Paths provides insights into workers’ career expectations by gender, age, education level, and position in the job hierarchy. A copy of the report can be downloaded here.)

 


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