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What Does a Future-Ready Africa Need?

This article was originally published on The Republic

To adequately prepare for the future of work, African professionals will have to reimagine what education and professional life mean.

In 1968, a story emphasizing how unprepared millions of people were for significant, imminent change captured the West’s attention. The Population Bomb, written by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, claimed that population growth would lead to mass starvation across the world. Ehrlich, in fact, went as far as saying that he ‘would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.’

Women defused the population bomb. In June, earlier this year, the UN revised its latest population forecast for this century down by 309 million people. This revision was thanks, largely, to declining birthrates in countries like Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and India. Across the world, regardless of changes in income level, access to education or the expectations of Ehrlich and the UN, women are choosing to have fewer children.

Add to this major improvements in global food production at the time The Population Bomb was being written, and it becomes clear that Ehrlich’s story of imminent change, of how ‘the stork had passed the plow’—that population growth had outpaced our ability to produce enough food—was, in fact, just a terrifying story of what could have been.

Today, a similar story of change and the uncertain fate of millions of people is sparking global discussion. By 2030, the World Economic Forum anticipates that Africa’s working-age population will increase from 370 million to 600 million, and 80 per cent of those individuals will one day work in positions that do not exist today. 46 per cent of all work activities in Nigeria are susceptible to automation, and with the UN reporting that 55 per cent of Nigerian youth are already either unemployed or underemployed, this puts hundreds of millions of people at risk of not just unemployment, but of life-long unemployability.

The ability of African governments, education systems, business and individuals to become future-ready will depend on a whether they can cultivate resilient and productive workforces with a high rate of return; workforces capable of not only overcoming imminent work-force disruptions but also of overcoming such disruptions throughout their professional lives.

Getting Governments Future-Ready

Ethiopia dedicates 27 per cent of its budget to education—the second highest of any country in the world. Despite the number of school-going children more than doubling in the last ten years, the percentage of those completing primary education is expected to rise from 30 per cent in 2000 to 80 per cent in 2030.

Ethiopia’s impressive economic growth over the last decade may put it in a good position to dedicate this amount of financial resource toward improving educational outcomes, but it is not unique on the continent. Ten of the fastest-growing economies in the world are in Southern Africa. In addition, if the African Continental Free Trade Agreement could functionalize just a fraction of its proposed $3 trillion market size, or the 25 per cent of GDP African countries are believed to typically lose to corruption could be captured, then the international benchmark for education spending—15-20 per cent of national GDP—would be well within the aspirational capacity of most African countries.

The question, of course, is how this investment could make the greatest impact. Governments will need to focus on the creation of competitive and relevant industries while developing the skills and capacity for lifelong learning that will be necessary for citizens to find work in these industries.

What kind of industries? The World Economic Forum has identified strong job growth potential in hard and soft infrastructure, the ICT sector and creative industries that incorporate technical elements like 3D design, data services, education and health work.

What kinds of skills? Digital skills and fluency will be critical. Creativity, emotional intelligence, critical thinking, communication skills, adaptability will also be important; competencies that are not easily automatable and which are essential to highly competitive and future-ready businesses.

What kind of capacity for lifelong learning? Through the French government’s Upskill the Nation programme €800 in credits is made available to individual workers over 10 years, which can be used to pay for training courses and work-readiness programmes as part of the government’s emphasis on lifelong learning. Singapore uses a similar credit-based system to give its citizens the opportunity to reskill throughout their lives.

Future-ready industries, skills and capacities for lifelong learning are intimidating moving targets for governments who already struggle with youth unemployment rates as high as 30 per cent. But the changes and adaptions that are required don’t just represent the challenge of ensuring African youth remain employable, but of affecting the terrifying story of change that threatens the futures of hundreds of millions of people.

The life-saving improvements in global food production during Ehrlich’s time emerged from highly-skilled professionals working in progressive, well-supported and technologically empowered industries. The solutions to Africa—and the world’s—most pressing challenges (reliable energy, climate change, food security) are already nestled in the minds of its youth.

By developing the right skills, the right industries and the right culture of lifelong learning, we would not only be preparing our youth for changes in the labour market: we would also be investing in the solutions that will ultimately save us.

Getting Education Systems Future-Ready

Ethiopia has done more than dedicate a major portion of its GDP to education. Through an Education Development Roadmap, Ethiopia is attempting to establish an internationally competitive workforce by diversifying the functions of higher education institutions around the needs and talents of students.

African education systems, with the support of their governments, need to become more adaptive and responsive to current and future transformations in technology and professional life. The professional lives of young adults will soon require that they are able relearn and reskill themselves throughout their lives, something education systems will need to support.

The World Economic Forum outlines four key competencies that will be required of professionals in this world: critical thinking and problem-solving skills, creativity, communication, and collaboration. It also emphasizes an accelerated focus on the acquisition of digital and STEM skills, early exposure to workplaces and career guidance.

The success of reforming education systems across the continent should not be measured by how well they prepare young Africans for the world of tomorrow. Instead, we need to assess education reform by how well reformed education systems prepare young Africans for every successive disruption they can expect over the lifetime of their professional careers.

This means placing competency-based learning and work-readiness at the centre of education, as well as reorganizing education around the realities of professional life. Learning, whether it’s in a classroom, an elective online programme or gained through practical experience, can no longer be considered a part of early life or an optional route to employment: it must become an integral and continuous part of African professional life.

This is a radical change that requires reimagining not just how schools and universities operate, but the role of education in society, its accessibility at all stages of life and its relationship with employment, industry and civic life.

Ensuring Businesses Aren't Left Behind

The private sector is as dependent on the success of this shift toward future-ready workforces as individual professionals. Businesses that invest in their employees; that offer learning opportunities, training and continuous skills development; will gain resilience to the disruptions they will need to overcome in the years ahead.

And yet, businesses across the continent continue to ask jobseekers with limited access to professional networks, previous work experience or career planning knowledge to submit referrals and social media handles in interviews. Businesses also overlook professionals with valuable competencies just because they were developed in non-traditional ways, and because university degrees are still used to determine competency in place of some other form of reliable testing.

Companies and businesses have a choice to make regarding how they recruit and conceptualize their workers: do they search desperately for the few experienced individuals with rigid but valuable skillsets, or do they focus on finding, nurturing and investing in capable, resilient and adaptable individuals?

African education systems would be hard-pressed to take full responsibility for the lifelong learning requirements of young professionals across industries. Far more feasible would be integrating the private sector into the nationally -important work of ensuring a resilient and productive labour force. Businesses, companies and industries are more attuned to the specific disruptions that their workers face, and so would be better positioned to prepare workers for the kind of work that will be required for them to stay competitive.

African businesses have much to gain from the disruptive technologies that are redefining work on the continent; mobile payment services, drone technology and innovations in everything from agriculture to digital design represent major opportunities for businesses at every scale.

But whether these businesses and industries will survive, let alone remain competitive, will depend on how they conceptualize and invest in their human capital, and their alignment with the efforts of forward-thinking governments.

Preparing For The Future Of Work

To adequately prepare for the future of work, African professionals will have to reimagine what education and professional life would mean. High-school learners will still dream of becoming doctors, teachers and engineers, but they won’t consider education a stage of early life, nor treat a single profession as a reliable means to a secure future.

It’s easy to argue that young Africans will need to focus on developing the skills, capacities and culture of lifelong learning to remain employable throughout their professional lives. But it will not be possible for the majority of them who are either unemployed or underemployed to simply reimagine themselves into jobs that do not currently exist.

Much has already been written about the future of work, enough for African societies to start seriously preparing for it. We have our great story of imminent change and severe consequence. Now governments, education systems and businesses need only begin aligning their policies and approaches with what we know is required, to ensure that this story too becomes just another terrifying example of what could have been.

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