Of the 1 252 071 South African students who entered Grade 1 in 2003, only 150 752 (or 12%) matriculated with access to a Bachelors degree at university. That single statistic encapsulates the sad reality of the South African education system. Even worse, a large proportion of the 12% won’t ever make it to university, either because they have alternative plans or, more likely, because they cannot afford it. Those who make a success of their university education will go on to find well-paying jobs; those without access (or who fail) will have to compete with the 88% remaining 18-year old’s for a job in a country with a broad unemployment rate of close to 40%. The severe income inequality in South Africa today is perpetuated by the inequality of our education system.
In addition, fewer unskilled and semi-skilled jobs are being created. Mechanisation and computerisation mean that robots are increasingly doing the jobs of unskilled workers; walk into a motor vehicle assembly plant, or visit a maize farm, or go to a supermarket in a developed country and you can easily see how robots and machines are replacing human labour. I even get phone calls from electronic telemarketers (surely, those can’t be successful?). So, given the large supply of unskilled labour in South Africa and the dearth of demand for such workers, what can those matriculants without access to university do?
A lot. Although there are many jobs that are becoming redundant because machines can perform them better, technological innovation can also be complimentary to unskilled labour, i.e. robots can also create jobs for poor people. In contrast to the first phase of industrialisation – when poor, unskilled (blue collar) workers worked on farms or in mines and (manu)factories and rich, skilled (white collar) workers had cosy desk jobs in the services industries like banking and insurance – the trend is reversing: the highest paying jobs are now building and programming the robots who do all the farming and mining and manufacturing, while poorer, less-qualified workers work in the services industries. Yes, some service industries, like lawyers and accountants and dentists, are still incredibly well paid, but other service industries that provide work for unskilled labourers are also flourishing.
Consider cellphone repair shops in townships. A decade ago, only fixed-line pay phones were available in poor areas, and they were serviced by technicians of Telkom. Now, with a little bit of ingenuity and experience, anyone can be a cellphone (or laptop) repair man (or woman). Smart phones are not only connecting companies with clients, but also with a work force they would never have had access to. As The Economist writes this week, the future of work will increasingly be outsourced. That is true both for skilled occupations, like lawyers and HR and management consultants, but also for unskilled labourers. Consider Uber, a car service which was founded in San Francisco in 2009 and which already operates in 53 countries including South Africa. Technology allows anyone with a decent car to act like a taxi service, creating jobs for people that only need a drivers license. It will certainly injure the existing taxi services. But it is generating far more new jobs than it is destroying, simply because far more people will use the new (cheaper and more efficient) service. (Unfortunately, government regulations are very slow to adapt to new technologies, and it is incredibly disappointing that Uber cars are now being pulled off Cape Town roads simply because government officials are unwilling, or unable, to understand the immense benefits of the new service, killing jobs for those who need it most.) Or consider Handy, a company where you can find someone to clean your house, or do small plumbing jobs, or paint, or fix the paintings to the wall. Technology (such as smart phone apps) now allow the providers of such services to be matched to the suppliers of such services at very low cost, creating jobs for the unskilled.
What can be done to encourage more of this behaviour? Governments could ease regulation to make such exchanges legal and less complicated. Entrepreneurs should build apps that allow people to match their needs (dog sitters, electricians, massage therapists, tattooists, midwives, house cleaners, snake catchers, whatever) to those who can provide it. What we need is a Gumtree for the service industry, with an interface like Uber.
But kids leaving school can help themselves too. They can start by acquiring basic skills that will be needed in a future where robots are our friends. A drivers license can still get you a job (especially working for yourself through Uber), but perhaps Google’s self-driving car will make that obsolete in ten years’ time. So here is my advice: think about what services cannot be done by machines. Sport coaches. Au pair services. Beauticians. Chefs. Wedding planners. Gardeners. Music teachers. Barbers. Paramedics. The best thing is that none of these require a university education. And these jobs will be in-demand for a long time to come; in fact, chances are you are more likely to find a job qualified in one of these professions than if you were to leave university with only a Bachelors degree. Often they will require extremely hard work and long hours, but in most cases you will be able to work for yourself, which means you determine the lifestyle you want.
Robots are not the evil things that will destroy the jobs of the poor. They may destroy some jobs, yes, but they will create far more jobs in other places; in fact, they may be the saving grace for our faltering education system. To identify the opportunities new technologies offer, matriculants without a university access will have to innovate, experiment, be entrepreneurial and dedicated. They will also have to learn to work with robots, not against them.