The future of work and COVID-19

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THE world is currently struggling in the grip of the deadly COVID-19 and something that I have been talking about for a while now has come to pass sooner than I had anticipated.

For the last couple of months to a year, I have been obsessed with the concept of “The future of work” most notably and specific to this article the concept of “digital working”.

COVID-19 is changing the world of work as we know it and when we finally get over this pandemic, the world of work, how we view work and arrange work will never be the same again.

I recall in my old job, remarking to a friend after he had come looking for me only to find me in my room that “I am not a receptionist, I don’t need to be physically present at the workplace to do my job”.

No disrespect to receptionists, but I had realised that there are several jobs which do not require people to be present at their work “office” to be able to work. When COVID-19 affected the world and the concept of “working from home” was introduced by many corporates to minimise the spread of the deadly virus, it immediately became a buzzword for many.

For myself and several other people, who are estimated to be in the millions in what is known as the “gig economy” or digital economy it was business as usual.

When my obsession with the Future of Work convinced me to make it the focus of my PhD studies, I hazarded that with the bulging youth unemployment figures in Africa and the ageing populations in Europe and Asia, there was a very viable opportunity for African governments to prioritise training and equipping their young people with the skills to be able to join the digital economy and provide services to other continents without the need to physically leave Africa.

This, for me, was hitting two birds with one stone. Africa would solve the unemployment question while other continents solve the migration crisis.

The bulk of young Africans escaping Africa are not running away from war but rather are economic refugees running away from a constricted labour market in search of better economic prospects.

Italy and Spain have lost thousands to the pandemic, may their souls rest in peace.

The truth of the matter, however, is that in as much as the world mourns their dead, life indeed must move on.

I singled out Spain and Italy because at the moment they are the two countries with the highest casualties.

The statistics from China are dubious as several reports claim that what we are being told is far from the truth in respect of the death toll of the pandemic.

I will, however, not dwell on this as this is a story for another day, another time.

Among the dead are economically active people and these will need replacing.

While others may now be having dreams of moving to Lombardy once this pandemic is over, I am talking about the gig economy.
How can Africa, which has been spared by the pandemic, be the answer to other continents which have lost so much as far as human resources are concerned?

What COVID-19 has shown us is that many jobs can be done from remote locations as long as one is sufficiently qualified and has a good internet connection and the accompanying gadgets.

It is a truism that several African countries, Zimbabwe included, have huge defence budgets, investing in water cannons, tear smoke guns and canisters, among other paraphernalia of violence.

The undisputable fact is colonialism is not coming back, at least the one which will need guns to resist, hence investments in these tools of violence is unnecessary.

How about channelling those huge defence budgets towards upgrading technology resources, making high-speed internet accessible in every corner of the country, making access to computers to every young person a priority.

In addition to investment in technological infrastructure, this is an opportunity for African governments to review their education curriculums and focus it on the digital economy and how the thousands of graduates being churned out of universities can have the skills which will guarantee their absorption into the digital economy.

The Zimbabwean universities are currently reviewing their academic curriculums but from the rumours going around, the process is non-consultative just like the primary and secondary curriculum which produced a “new curriculum” which is at best useless.

I have already made my misgivings on the primary and high school curriculum known in an earlier article, so I won’t delve into it here. I, however, see history repeating itself in the universities curriculum and that is regrettable.

My questions though is: Why is it that those who superintend over these processes are averse to consulting the lecturers and teachers who are key stakeholders?

Is it a bloated sense of self, assuming that they are all knowing and hence do not need the opinions of “lowly” teachers and lecturers?

If this is the case then, it’s very regrettable. My prayer is that this review process will take into consideration the changing world of work and the migration to digital work which has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anything short of that would be a great indictment on the people responsible for the review.

While I focus on government(s) in a bid to influence policy, I will end by posing a question to you dear reader at a personal level;
How are you positioning yourself skill-wise for the digital economy, because change in the world of work is not coming, but is already here and is not reversible?

Adio-Adet T Dinika is a capacity development consultant with interests and specialisation in the digital economy, digital labour markets, and social and labour policy development. He is a KAAD scholar and the current chairperson of the Katholischer Akademischer Ausländer-Dienst Association of scholars in Southern Africa.