Key features of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) — accelerating digitalization, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, robotics and 3D printing — have obvious and important implications for education, employment and the future of work.
This is especially true for African countries. Over the past decade, the share of the continent’s population under the age of 20 has expanded by more than 25 percent and is projected to be its largest age cohort by 2070. As Africa meets the 4IR, its youth is one of its most important assets.
To capture this demographic dividend, African countries must overhaul their education systems to prepare for the coming technological revolution. While automation could increase skills premiums and exacerbate income inequality, it could also increase productivity and create new occupations.
Illustration: Constance Chou
The 4IR represents a unique opportunity for African countries to leapfrog over development hurdles with the help of technology.
The 4IR is likely to heavily influence which skills are needed in the labor market. Around the world, demand is evolving toward adaptable social, behavioral and non-repetitive cognitive skills, and away from routine tasks and narrow skills tied to specific jobs.
In Africa, demand for software engineers, marketing specialists, writers and financial advisers is rising, whereas demand for mechanical technicians, administrative assistants and accountants is falling.
Developing these skills starts in early childhood. In addition to improving education, African countries need to increase investment in nutrition, health and social protections for children. Sadly, Africa is home to one-third of the world’s stunted children aged five or younger, and that number is still rising.
Yet the link between nutrition and a workforce’s cognitive capacity is clear. Governments that invest in better nutrition, particularly for the first 1,000 days after conception, are likely to see far-reaching economic — as well as humanitarian — returns.
At the other end of the youth spectrum, higher education is more important than ever before for preparing workers to adapt to the changing job landscape they are likely to encounter over the course of their careers.
For example, studies in Kenya and Tanzania cited by the African Development Bank (AfDB) show that non-repetitive and cognitive skills are associated with better starting pay, greater job satisfaction and higher wages over time.
Yet, across Africa, less than 4 percent of the population has a university degree. Education has remained concentrated in social sciences and humanities, and has lagged in the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — which are crucial for harnessing the 4IR.
As a result, there is a growing mismatch between businesses’ evolving demands and the skills furnished by African education systems.
The sooner African countries can close these gaps, the better chance they will have of reaping the benefits of new technologies.
Some countries are already making significant strides in this direction. For example, Egypt has introduced “interactive classrooms,” distributing 1.5 million tablets loaded with an electronic encyclopedia that can also be accessed from school networks and youth centers.
About 2,500 Egyptian schools have high-speed Internet access, and new solar-powered, smart classrooms are being created in remote areas with the help of advanced mobile technologies.
For its part, the AfDB has launched the Coding for Employment program as part of its Jobs for Youth in Africa strategy to provide digital skills to the next generation.
Among other components, this program, which targets young people aged 15 to 35, furnishes universities and training centers with computers and other equipment, provides demand-driven training programs in partnership with leading technology firms and equips young people with essential soft and interpersonal skills, as well as direct employment opportunities.
Moreover, in collaboration with academic institutions, the AfDB is participating in research on how to make African education systems more agile and responsive.
Although economic growth was strong in Africa before the COVID-19 crisis, it was not inclusive, and poverty and inequality remain high across the region.
While the continent has made large gains in school enrollment, it lags behind other regions on a number of indicators, including average number of years of education and school quality. High-school dropout rates in Africa still exceed 30 percent, more than twice the global average of 13 percent.
To catch up with other regions, African countries must adopt national strategies for education and skills development, focusing not only on young people, but also on adult workers, dropouts, informal-economy workers, and those from economically and socially disadvantaged groups.
African employers often cite inadequately prepared workers as a major constraint on their businesses’ growth.
Similarly, AfDB research found that close to half of employed young people in Africa consider their skills to be mismatched to their jobs and that two-thirds are either over or under-educated, leading to depressed wages and job satisfaction.
Only by tackling these skill and education mismatches can African countries build an adaptable and flexible workforce that is ready for the 4IR. Doing so requires a new educational philosophy that prizes soft skills while investing in basic and digital infrastructure.
To reduce dropout rates, attendance incentives and access to schools in remote areas must be enhanced, and primary-school education, at a minimum, should be made mandatory.
By ensuring more demand-driven education, African countries can reduce persistent labor market mismatches and make education more attractive to students and more relevant for employers.
One exciting option for African countries is to use new dynamic information systems to track labor-market needs, making it easier for young people to learn about job openings, apply for jobs and meet their skill requirements.
An overhaul of African education systems would translate into increased productivity and output for the continent as a whole.
AfDB research found that improvements in educational attainment — higher completion rates — and quality — more and better teachers, textbooks and other resources — are positively correlated with worker productivity and, in turn, with a country’s development outcomes.
The importance of skills development for young Africans thus cannot be overlooked. It represents one of the key drivers of innovation on the continent. To benefit from that relationship, the African workforce must start preparing today for tomorrow’s jobs.
Hanan Morsy is director of the African Development Bank’s Macroeconomic Policy, Forecasting, and Research Department.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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