This time machines may take our jobs


The World Bank just released its World Development Report and it has some great insights on the changing nature of work. Humans have always lived with the fear that they will become victims of their own technological innovation, states the report in its introductory section. So far it has not happened because technology has always created more opportunities than it has taken away. The impact is that with the aid of advancements in technology, humans are living far longer than they have lived in the past, have better health and are richer than they have ever been.

But then continuing advancement in technology is beginning to raise new fears that we cannot always assume that technology will always create more opportunities for humans than it can take away. Even in the past when it has given, it had always taken away but more humans have benefitted. The advent of computers eliminated type writers and typists who could not become computer operators. But computers created new opportunities for humans than typewriters ever did.

The World Bank report warns that it is important to understand that many children currently in primary school will work in jobs as adults that do not currently exist.  Any father with a child in school currently should be worried about this statement. It immediately raises the question; are our children getting the right education or acquiring the right skills that would prepare them for the emerging future?

The World Bank report offers some insights into the kind of skills that are increasingly needed in the work place. The skills will be a combination of “technological know-how, problem-solving, and critical thinking as well as soft skills such as perseverance, collaboration, and empathy, teamwork, and skill combinations that are predictive of adaptability such as reasoning, complex problem solving and self-efficacy.’ The report states that building these skills requires strong human capital foundations and lifelong learning.

Developing countries will have to invest in education and health of their people with a ‘fierce’ sense of urgency, the World Bank said in the report.  Education and health is considered the building blocks of human capital which is the key competitive edge in the knowledge economy. It is not enough to have a large population, the quality of that population will be the key differentiator in economic competitiveness in future.

The report notes that ‘In countries with the lowest human capital investments today, our analysis suggests that the workforce of the future will only be one-third to one-half as productive as it could be if people enjoyed full health and received a high-quality education.’

In line with the changing nature of work, the demand for less advanced skills that can be replaced by technology is declining. At the same time, the demand for advanced cognitive skills, socio-behavioural skills, and skill combinations associated with greater adaptability is rising, an indication of an emerging trend that is likely to grow than reversed.

BuisnessDay’s cover story today (22 October) shows that firms listed on the stock exchange have not expanded their workforce over the last nine years. Even if we give room for the fact that some companies have been delisted over the period, and that the stock market forms just a small portion of the Nigerian economy, there is still a cause for concern that quality jobs in the formal sector of the economy looks not to be growing.

The lack of growth in jobs could be explained by both the fact that the economy has not expanded fast enough to create new jobs and also that companies have gotten more efficient and smarter through the acquisition of advanced technology which has cut costs and reduced the need for human labour. If it is economic slowdown that is causing the loss of jobs, then the job losses could be temporary but if it is technology, then what we are facing is a permanent loss of jobs because machines have taken the place of humans.

The changing nature of work means that the government must study with more intensity the changes in the labour market. What skills are fading out and what skills are being required. The results of these studies should be fed back into the school system to ensure that education is adapted to create the rights skills that the job market will need. Young people cannot be allowed to grow only to find out that they have been locked out of the quality and high paying jobs market because they do not have the skill sets to compete.

Singapore is one of the countries that is responding to the changing nature of work. Singapore, which is rated as having the best educational system in the world, recently abolished ranking of students in their primary school system based on their performance in examinations. The focus now in Singapore will be to allow each student develop at his or her own pace and instilling in them the clear understanding that education is no longer a destination but a lifelong process. Discussions, homework and quizzes are set to replace marks and grades as the preferred method of collecting information on the performance of young primary school pupils. Also starting in 2019, exams for primary years 1 and 2 students will be abolished.

Explaining the decision for the change, Ong Ye Kung, Singapore’s Education Minister was quoted as saying ““Learning is not a competition.” The Ministry of Education is reported to be pushing for applied learning programmes in its schools to ‘bolster personal development and help students acquire real-world skills.’ They are also seeking to change perception and push student aspirations beyond working in banking, civil service and medicine, which are all jobs that may not exist as we know it in future.

Education in the knowledge world, is a lifelong process that will not end. Those who have no ability to learn will just become irrelevant in the knowledge economy of the 21 st century. If Nigeria will make its population count in future, it needs to reform its education system now and as the World Bank advises, with a fierce sense of urgency.
Anthony Osae-Brown 

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