Tawana Kupe | The future of work - new approaches for new times

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Illustration photo by Getty Images

In a context where the world of work is changing, we need to ensure that our students and graduates are appropriately skilled and prepared for the future of work, writes University of Pretoria Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe. 


Universities throughout history have shaped and have been shaped by catalytic developments in society, including scientific and technological revolutions, wars, colonialism, globalisation, and pandemics. Currently, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the Covid-19 pandemic have a massive impact on the future of work.

Universities play a central role in society in preparing graduates for the world of work and producing impactful knowledge. In a context where the world of work is changing, we need to ensure that our students and graduates are appropriately skilled and prepared for the future of work. This critically includes entrepreneurship in higher education, which is now widely recognised as being as important as postgraduate studies and a major driver of innovation and job creation.

Addressing the future of work for broader society, universities are proactively researching digitalisation and the new normal for working life in a variety of ways, including whether the future of work will be largely remote, a return to the pre-Covid era or a combination of both (the hybrid approach). The last-mentioned is the most likely, and we need to engender an entirely new work life culture for this, with technology as an enabler of productivity, employment, and lifelong learning for all citizens.

Meetings in a digital world

The past year has revealed that online meetings in a digitalising world not only save a lot of time, but also facilitate greater national and international access in an increasingly borderless world. The past year has also shown that working from home can be highly productive, but requires managing to ensure people engage during online meetings, sustain productivity, and that their physical and mental well-being are taken care of. 

Research in communication skills in the online space is a huge new area, such as how to keep people engaged in online meetings. There is a tendency for people to disengage once they mute their microphones or go off video, and while it is not always possible, given widely ranging degrees of connectivity, it is preferable to ask people to remain on video to keep them focused.

The pandemic has strongly revealed that people still need and desire to meet physically and engage, when possible. It is beneficial, therefore, to have small groups physically meeting every week or two, with all physical distancing protocols observed. It has a positive effect on staff morale. 

The Future of Work dailogue 

These and many other aspects of the future of work will be discussed during the first Nobel Prize Dialogue ever to be held in Africa, hosted by the University of Pretoria on 18 May. The theme is The Future of Work, and we are bringing together a gathering of five Nobel laureates, key opinion leaders, policymakers, students, researchers, and citizens to discuss the changing nature of work. After the event, the University of Pretoria will be launching a Centre for the Future of Work that will, through interdisciplinary research, create the knowledge that can enable our country and continent to be future fit.

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It's imperative that we address the digital divide in Africa as connectivity, and data affordability is a considerable challenge in all our countries. We need to focus on bridging this divide and ensuring access to technology for the majority and upskilling as many people as possible to be tech savvy. This requires an active human social-shaping hand to get the best out of the potential of the technology in both high-tech and low-tech environments.

At the same time we need to hold governments accountable when they pledge universal broadband access - such as the South African government has done - but have not yet delivered. We also need corporates, internet service providers, and mobile communication companies to play their part in contributing to affordable data and access for all.

A paper published in 2017 by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) titled The Future of Work in South Africa highlights that: "As the global mega-trends sweep across the world, they encounter economies and societies at vastly different stages of development, with widely diverging capacities to take advantage of or suffer the negative consequences of the changes that result. 

Highly skilled workforce 

"'Decent jobs for all' has long been a rallying call of the ILO, recently intensified through the Future of Work Initiative. …One of the key challenges confronting policymakers relates to finding a balance between job creation initiatives and the ILO concept of decent work within the context of rapidly advancing technology … which brings with it (the need for) a more highly-skilled and educated workforce, better able to work independently."

The requirement for a highly skilled and educated workforce is repeatedly emphasised in all future of work research with universities, as the drivers of curricula that address the requirements of digitalisation and the need for 4IR-savvy graduates.

A report published by PwC in 2019 titled Workforce of the future 2030 – Global trends challenged by African realities says:

"By 2030, Africa will be home to more than a quarter of the world’s population of under 25s, which will make up 60% of the continent’s total population. By then, 15% of the world's working population will reside in Africa. The change in demographics suggests that Africa will need to expand its pool of highly-skilled employees through the development of cognitive STEM-based skills (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and non-cognitive soft skills like sense-making and social-intelligence competencies… There are highly integrated and complex feedback loops between technology, systems, jobs and skill requirements.

"These feedback loops and their relationship with the workforce will impact the growth trajectory of businesses, jobs and skill requirements. Although Africa will experience unprecedented technological disruption, this also presents an opportunity for the continent to drive inclusion and economic growth, through the utilisation of future-ready strategies for job creation."

The role of humanities  

While certain jobs may decline or reconfigure in a society driven by artificial intelligence, new professions and jobs are emerging, especially in industries that leverage creativity and innovation. Given the limitations of machine learning, especially with regard to managing challenges associated with judgement, decision-making, and interpretation, the humanities have an equally important role to play in the 4IR alongside science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

The STEAM (Science, Technology, Arts and Mathematics) movement reflects the growing demand of the arts and humanities in STEM fields, with new disruptive technologies such as 3D printing and robotics providing significant opportunities for transdisciplinary skills.

Based on research into mega trends, the PwC report and many others list the top generic skills for the future as: sense-making, social intelligence, adaptive thinking, cross-cultural competencies, computational thinking, new media literacy, transdisciplinarity, a design mindset, and virtual collaboration. 

Universities need to incorporate this into the curriculum on two levels: we want all our students to develop these generic skills across all disciplines and they need to be digitally literate, with all students taking modules such as data analytics and data sciences in collaboration with our IT and computer science department. 

The science, engineering and technology curriculum needs to match the rapid and far-reaching changes taking place in science and technology, especially in fields such as genomics, biotechnology, data science, AI, robotics, and nanomaterials. 

The curriculum across disciplines needs to be informed by engagement with professional bodies, industry and all stakeholders in the world of work to ensure what we offer is future fit for our graduates to get employed or to start their own businesses. 

What we are doing at the University of Pretoria 

To give a UP example, we have a business incubator called TuksNovation in order to train our students to be entrepreneurs and employers. TuksNovation provides specialised innovative thinking and support to entrepreneurs throughout their start-up growth journeys, and we have a growing number of strong local and international partnerships. We are motivated by the opportunities these partnerships present in support of the growing trend of small business global entrepreneurship, which effectively boosts the internationalisation of small business. While the internationalisation of large corporates or multinationals is long established, the linking of small businesses to international value chains and markets is rapidly rising. A world of opportunity is open in this borderless environment, and this has been turbo-charged by digitalisation. This has an inestimable impact on the potential to scale and accelerate the business maturation of start-ups and small businesses.

South Africa has the benefit of a culturally diverse population and extending beyond our country adds to this diversity in many positive ways. Knowing market dynamics, cultural preferences, client behaviour and expectations can only be realised by being exposed to each market. Partners in the form of suppliers or extended services are critical to entering these markets. 

There is so much potential. To give you an example: UP Chemical Engineering PhD Dr Mthokozisi Sibanda founded African Applied Chemical (Pty) Ltd and through TuksNovation patented its breakthrough long-lasting insect repellent fabric technology called BiKoRepellent Fabric® Technology. Products include anklets, bracelets, socks, personal care and mosquito nets. Sibanda is currently working on an agreement with a research group to finalise the development of the mosquito nets, which will allow them to submit them to the World Health Organization for accreditation. Malaria is a leading cause of death on the continent, and this innovation has the potential for huge social impact. 

READ | OPINION | Covid-19 economic impact: Private sector and industry must work together

That’s the high-tech side. Growing the local tech side through micro and small businesses with our local communities is another essential engagement focus area for higher education institutions to enable people who do not have the benefit of education to create self-employment.

Young people's role in the future 

The ILO report also says the youth (15-35 years) in South Africa constitutes just over 36% of the entire population, making it a country with a significantly high number of young people. This poses challenges for the labour market and for skills development, but also suggests opportunities.

The University of Pretoria has a strong presence in our neighbouring Mamelodi township, where young people have come up with strong business ideas for new apps but they don’t know how to code, so we are teaching them these skills. One idea is a loyalty app for small informal convenience (spaza) shops so that customers benefit from loyalty points and specials. 

We are also on a drive in agriculture – mainly the micro farming of vegetables for food security through a new internship from South Africa’s agriculture sector training authority (AgriSETA). The goal is for these initiatives to be sustainable with strong, established markets. One of the markets is our large student population; other markets include local, early childhood development centres, retail stores and hawkers, creating a value chain in the local communities. What is very encouraging is to see how many young people are interested in farming again. 

The combination of a highly skilled, future fit pool of graduates together with social and community impact serves the crusade of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), namely to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. SDG 8 calls for the promotion of sustained and inclusive economic growth and "... full and productive employment and decent work for all". It's a gigantic, highly stimulating challenge. How we achieve it, is in our hands.

The University of Pretoria is hosting the Nobel Prize Dialogue on Tuesday, 18 May from 10h00-14h00, where five Nobel Prize winners will speak on “The Future of Work.” You can register at: www.nobelprize.org/future-of-work

- Kupe is Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of Pretoria. 

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