The Evolution of Work

This weekly column is intended to focus on one of the determinants of Scarce Skills in South Africa, namely the changing face of work and jobs. It is a supplementary tool for Human Resource Practitioners and others in the company responsible for forecasting current and future manpower requirements. Your projections in this regard should feature in both your Skills Development Plans as well as in your Employment Equity Planning, and thereby impact on your BBBEE activities and ratings.

Our first Minister of Labour, Tito Mboweni referred to the issue of “Scarce Skills” in the Skills Development Act, when he implied that there were two reasons Employers needed to think about their future provisions for Skills, in the workplace. He spoke about a focus on “Real” Future Skill needs, and “Probable” Future needs.

“Real” Skills needs allow you to identify current Skills Shortages. Actual, current work, which might be available in your company where you cannot find sufficient candidates to occupy those positions. However, a “Really” scarce skill is equally evident where there are people in those positions who clearly are incompetent or incapable and obviously not sufficiently skilled to do the work. This becomes a need to re-train, and potentially where such interventions do not work, to excise from the company. The Labour Relations issue you need to focus on here specifically, is your responsibility as an Employer to exhaust your obligation to give skills, to empower and to capacitate. The rest is up to the Employee themselves. To HR practitioners, this is a current “demand side” challenge to manpower provisioning

Focusing on “probable” future skills is a more exciting activity for those with vision in the workplace. This category of manpower projecting is about the changing face of work. It is about forecasting how current positions will change. It requires a determinant to be made on the need for re-training of existing staff or, completely fresh recruitment of new faces for the company. In this series of articles the focus will be on the evolution of work in creating “Probable Skills” needs for various Industries.

The beauty about forecasting about changes in work is in anticipating opportunities to extend, integrate and yes as always to become more productive in the workplace in servicing the needs of your client base. Every company wishes to be current in its offering and indeed changes in work will, to some extent force that currency, or the need for it.

Undoubtedly changes in technology plays a major role in forcing the evolution of jobs. There is no doubt that as work becomes less labour intensive and more cerebral, there is a need to keep skills amongst the existing workforce current, and in many cases to find freshly skilled and new employees for the workplace.

The message of caution because of this unstoppable evolution of work for social partners, is twofold.

Trade Unions must be cautious of the fact that as work becomes more technological, cerebral and by definition individualized, so this type of worker avoids collectivity. It is going to become increasingly difficult for Unions to recruit the new-age worker as a member. This individual will be disinterested in what is often an outdated message of the collective spirit, which Trade Unions espouse. Undoubtedly there will be many workers, indeed initially still the majority of the workforce, who will resist change and hence stick to Trade Unions more ferociously than ever before for fear of losing their jobs and their incomes. This in-turn will cause a schism to open between those workers able to adapt to the changing rules in the workplace and those leading the changes. Evolution by definition will imply redundancy and labour replacement, which in a labour intensive economy is always a danger.

Employers must be aware that there is an exchange required for keeping employee’s current. That is an increase in wages where we move away from a benefit model of paying for contribution, which is typically the model employed in a highly unionized economy, towards paying for qualifications and skills. In the long run this change will benefit the Employer whereby upgrading the skills base to remain current, levels of productivity and contribution will undoubtedly increase in the process.

The net result of the evolution of work will be a reduction in labour intensive work processes which does not augur well in an economy with as high an unemployment rate as we have in this country. This course is however unavoidable but also highly manageable. It really depends on whether Trade Unions have the best interest of the workforce at heart, and whether Employers will be prepared to adjust compensation levels in the workplace. The catalyst as always is the Global Community and the evolution of work there. It is the inspiration for many South African companies to want to be Globally Competitive. That comes at a price.