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Unlearn, relearn

September 20, 2017

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THE nature of work and its corresponding job skills are constantly changing. It is estimated that 65pc of children entering primary school and up to 40pc of tertiary students will ultimately end up working in completely new types of jobs that have yet to be created, and some of the skills they are learning will become obsolete during their working lives.

For Pakistan, the challenge is to create a framework that will provide the workforce of the 21st century with the skills they will need to manage uncertainty and change.

The foundations for the first and second industrial revolutions were mechanised power and mass production. Barely five years ago, The Economist described how “a number of remarkable technologies are converging: clever software, novel materials, more dexterous robots, new processes (notably three-dimensional printing) and a whole range of web-based services” to drive the third industrial revolution that was already under way.

Like all previous iterations of similar transformational eras, this period — sometimes defined as the information age — created new business models and disrupted old ones; it gave birth to some of today’s largest and most iconic companies and destroyed many that were just as iconic in their heyday; it created new jobs, occupations and entrepreneurial opportunities that didn’t exist before but it also made many skills and their practitioners redundant.

There are serious economic disruptions on the horizon.

Now, in the second decade of the third millennium, we are at the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution which according to the chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF) will be “more comprehensive and all-encompassing than anything we have ever seen” and which will be powered by advances in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics and 3-D printing among others. Once again, existing business models, jobs and skill sets will be disrupted.

That is the relevance of Alvin Toffler’s observation that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”. It captures perfectly the challenges faced by countries everywhere in the fields of education, specific job skills and the culture of workplace learning and training.

The key characteristic of the technologies of the third and fourth industrial revolutions is the level of process automation and product sophistication. It is potentially a negative game changer for developing nations and emerging economies because, in addition to improving how products are made, it will also influence where they are made by nullifying the comparative advantage of low wages that directed a high percentage of 20th-century manufacturing jobs to poorer countries.

And while robotics will largely impact blue-collar jobs in the rich countries, a World Bank report estimates that some five million white-collar jobs in 15 developed and emerging economies will be subject to redundancies as artificial intelligence technology moves to the next level of its development. So it is important to understand that in an increasingly interdependent world, there are serious economic disruptions on the horizon as well as innovative opportunities for individuals who have unlearned their obsolete skill sets and learned new ones that are relevant in the 21st century.

What is Pakistan’s capacity to cope with these disruptions? The WEF’s Human Capital Index evaluates the levels of education, skills and employment available to people in five distinct age groups, starting from under 15 years to over 65 years. Here are some numbers from the 2016 report:

Pakistan’s overall rank is 118 out of 130 countries. In the key 25 to 54 age group there are three indicators that underline our weaknesses in these areas:

• In terms of the extent that companies invest in workplace learning, staff training and employee development, Pakis­tan is ranked 109

• In terms of the ease of finding employees with the required skills for a company’s business needs, Pakis­tan is ranked 93

• In the area of economic complexity which attempts to measure a country’s productive knowledge and skills based on the sophistication of its export products, Pakistan ranks 82

These are critical weaknesses among the many that threaten Pakistan’s competitive ability and suppress its human development potential. While it is necessary to fix some of the obvious problems such as our failing education systems, these generational reforms must be combined with solutions that provide remedies in the shorter term.

One of the key areas for immediate intervention is a commitment to greater investment by businesses in workplace learning and workforce retraining, not only in the relevant aspects of the new technologies but also in general management skills that will help individuals deal with unfamiliar situations, resolve complex problems, collaborate with others to share resources and work in high performance teams.

Pakistan has a lot of catching up to do and no time to lose.

The writer is founding president of the National Entrepreneurship Working Group (NEW-G).

Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2017