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Reshaping and reskilling for a post-Covid-19 workplace

 Image by Gerd Altmann

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced organisations and employees to change the way they operate and work, and Unisa is no exception. While everyone was going with the flow in the beginning, it now appears that the new way of working will be a blueprint soon. Professor Puleng LenkaBula, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Unisa also asserts that: “The pandemic has caused a shift that will soon see Unisa having to reclaim space in academia, and the ODeL space specifically.” She adds that there is a need for an urgent shift in the manner that Unisa staff perform their duties. “It can no longer be business as usual,” LenkaBula says. “My priority is for Unisa to recognise that it’s no longer the only player in this arena. The first thing I said when I met the vice-principals and deans was that we should not be complacent because complacency has led to multiplicities of businesses folding. We as Unisa have to reinvent, reshape, and regenerate ourselves.”

Speaking at the 2020 Unisa Teaching and Learning Festival, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg said: “Covid-19 has forced us into the fast lane of the 4IR super-highway”. Marwala explained that the global pandemic which has seen the world locked down has shown that we can no longer dismiss 4IR as mere rhetoric. “Keeping economies functioning while curbing the spread of the virus has hastened the shift towards the 4IR,” he said.

In 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that as many as 375 million workers – or 14 percent of the global workforce – would have to switch occupations or acquire new skills by 2030 because of automation and artificial intelligence. Thus, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, developing technologies and new ways of working were disrupting jobs and the skills employees will need for these jobs.

Marwala explained that the investment in human capital is a logical and necessary intervention, taking into consideration South Africa’s rising unemployment rate, coupled with the brain drain of the past few years. As a 4IR expert, Marwala argued that, to prepare the current workforce for changes of the 4IR, there must be a mixture of skills stacked on top of each other – and aligned to industry. This, he said, should allow people to enter and leave the system at numerous points as part of a lifelong learning process. “We need to invest in projects for mass skills development. This investment can be scaled for exponential skills pipeline development and market absorption.”

Importantly, Marwala said that: “[a]s a matter of national culture, all aspects of society must be prepared to reskill and to approach learning as a continuous process. Our education system at all levels must promote problem-solving skills, computational thinking, multidisciplinary skills, and systems thinking, as well as mastering the social, economic, and political worlds.”

The coronavirus pandemic has made this question more urgent. According to Marwala, workers across industries must figure out how they can adapt to rapidly changing conditions, and organisations have to learn how to match those workers to new roles and activities. “This dynamic is about more than remote working – or the role of automation and AI. It’s about how leaders can reskill and upskill the workforce to deliver new business models in the post-pandemic era,” he said.

The need to enhance skills

The pandemic has shifted the way jobs are executed; this also implies that there is a need to enhance skills to deliver new business models which will ensure organisations’ resilience in the new world of work. The current workforce needs to find ways to retain flexibility in their existing skills. While this may be overwhelming, it is an opportunity for development and upskilling. The McKinsey Global Institute argues that there will be an upward trend of hiring remote talent over the coming years. This will give organisations better and wider access to skills from a large talent pool. While this is good news for businesses and employers, for those who drag at upskilling, it could mean a slim chance of career progression if not something that renders them redundant.

To maximise chances of success in the new world of work, the current workforce needs to analyse their current skills and look where there are gaps and opportunities for upskilling. Unisa, fortunately, offers its employees opportunities for the continuation of training and development internally and externally, as well as improving the effectiveness of skills development and lifelong learning opportunities.

According to the International Labour Organization, the Covid-19 pandemic has placed an urgent demand on individuals to acquire new skills, reskill, and upskill to adapt to the new normal. As the pandemic accelerated changes in the demand for skills and raised the possibility of structural shifts in labour markets around the world, there is an urgent need for quality training to support a robust economic recovery. Without remediation, there is a risk of leaving behind a “Covid-19 generation” of current and future workers with lower earnings and lower quality jobs over their lifetime.

To remain agile and resilient, individuals have to take the responsibility to improve their effectiveness in the new world of work through lifelong learning and skills development.

*By Tshimangadzo Mphaphuli, Senior Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2021/10/11