The Dean of the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology, Professor Sunil Maharaj, delivered his inaugural address as President of the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers (SAIEE) for 2021/22 via a virtual webinar held on 31 March 2021. The topic of his address was “The Future of Work”.
Prof Maharaj, who has been a member of SAIEE for the past 25 years, is also a Fellow of the South African Academy of Engineering and was the founding chair of the South African section of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Vehicular Technology Society Chapter. He is the first African Dean to be elected as chair of the Global Engineering Dean’s Council, a position he will assume for two years from November 2021.
His address, which focused on the disruptive trends that are emerging in the workplace and the impact of new technologies on society, was particularly pertinent given the present digital transformation that is being experienced worldwide. “With the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), the world as we know it has altered fundamentally,” Prof Maharaj said. “This digital transformation has triggered essential changes to the way we live, work, socialise and study, and has been exacerbated by COVID-19.”
He highlighted that the future of work is a topic of growing concern for industry, academics, scholars, leaders and unions throughout the world. “Technological transitions have seen the conception of robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), drones, the internet of things and virtual reality – all of which are taking over the workplace at a rapid rate. These changes raise important questions about job security and the skills required for future employment in the 4IR and beyond.”
In contemplating the nature of work and the workplace of the future, Prof Maharaj considered the primary skills required for the future of work, and the impact of automation and digital transformation on employment prospects. He considered the skills identified by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as being essential for the world beyond the 4IR, against both a global and a South African perspective. He highlighted the fact that “technology is the catalyst to change in the workplace, but humans are the sustaining force behind the machines”. Skills like leadership, deliberation and debate, conflict resolution and ethical considerations for decision-making will be vital for companies to thrive in the future.
As the COVID-19 pandemic drives profound societal and organisational shifts, leaders have the opportunity to return to work by designing the future of work, building on the lessons and practices of their organisations executed during this time. “This crisis presents a unique opportunity for organisations to overcome the instinct of viewing man and machine as equals, but instead to build connections that can pave the way forward.
“COVID-19 has challenged business leaders to do three things at once: stage the return to work, understand and leverage the advancements they enacted during the crisis, and channel a new path forward,” he said.
According to a study that assessed countries’ readiness for automation in terms of their innovation environment, as well as education and labour market policies, South Africa fared relatively poorly in comparison to Germany, France and the UK. Prof Maharaj said an action plan is required by government, business and individuals to address this deficiency. “Government should embrace digitisation, invest in human capital and mitigate the impact of automation on jobs. Business should rethink its strategies, upgrade workforce planning and reskilling, and embrace new ways of working. Individuals should focus on skills (not just qualifications), embrace lifelong learning and find opportunities for entrepreneurs. Careers should built around learning instead of career built around jobs.”
He said the expectation, according to the WEF 2020 report, is that 85 million jobs may be displaced by the shift in the division of labour between man and machine by 2025, while 97 million new roles may emerge globally. “From a South African perspective, although the impact of digital transformation is disruptive, it presents enormous opportunities to rekindle throughput, income and fiscal growth. It also has the potential to create millions of high-quality jobs, improve operational efficiency and help deliver better outcomes for businesses and the public, and address the triple challenge of unemployment, poverty and inequality.”
Prof Maharaj concluded his address by stating that, although there is ongoing debate about the changing face of the workplace, there is a clear consensus that these changes are fundamental and evident. He advised organisations to revise their employment policies to accommodate the changing world of work, bearing in mind the expectations and needs of a diverse workforce.
In conclusion, he said: “To survive in the future world of work, we not only need to embrace digital transformation, but also develop cross-disciplinary skills, such as engineering combined with data science, embrace diversity and cultural interaction in the workplace, which can enable us to continually upskill and reskill ourselves to adapt to the changing workplace of the future. The SAIEE, with a membership of more than 6000 professionals, is ideally placed to make a distinct contribution to workers, workplaces and future work in South Africa and beyond!”
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