The fourth Industrial Revolution and the reskilling challenge: a view from the Global South

By Ramiro Albrieu, Senior Researcher and Megan Ballesty, Project Co-ordinator, Center for the Implementation of Public Policies for Equity and Growth (CIPPEC-Argentina, member of the Southern Voice network)

The fourth industrial revolution is redefining the role of people in the workplace and, consequently, challenging 20th century education systems.
Many of the breakthroughs in the field of applied artificial intelligence and related technologies enable the automation of “codifiable” or repetitive tasks, representing hard-to-beat competition for workers performing them. Societies are therefore making efforts to redirect human capital investments away from learning goals associated with performing routine and repetitive tasks. Although this goal is clear, the specific features of policy frameworks to achieve it are hard to design, as they are highly context-dependent. A few examples follow.

Technology: getting the race started

Advances in technology raise the demand for skills, while education systems – targeting different stages in life– supply those skills.

Gaps may emerge between supply and demand when education struggles to keep up with technological shifts. However, this description is accurate for technology-savvy countries only. In the Global South, the race has barely started.

Reskilling programmes should not take technological change for granted. Instead, they must be part of technology-promoting strategies that aim to expand the demand for such skills.

With some notable exceptions, so far there are no signs of broad-based penetration of robots, large-scale automation, or 4.0 technologies outside high-income countries. Reskilling is a global imperative, but, in the Global South, it is equally important to engage in aggressive technology policy to kickstart the race and provide the incentives and co-ordination mechanisms for technology and skills to move forward hand in hand.

Demography: mind the age gap 

The world is aging rapidly, but the Global South is at an earlier demographic stage than the Global North. Only by 2100 is the Global South projected reach today’s high-income countries median age.

Demographics have implications for education systems. In countries with aging populations, a considerable portion will retire later than expected and need to learn new skills to remain active. There are also fewer children in the education system than in developing regions. To illustrate, 10% of the German population is between 5 and 15 years old, while in Uganda, this segment represents 30%. For older countries, the shift in emphasis towards adult learning and lifelong learning systems not only makes sense as a response to technological change, but also to the demographic stage they are in.

The challenges for younger countries are different. While Latin America and Asia are starting to age, Africa’s population is still young and will keep growing over the next three decades. They all need to foster lifelong learning systems, but young countries also need to focus on getting their formal primary, secondary and tertiary education systems in shape to accommodate the increasing number of school attendees.

Education: schooling ain’t learning

Indeed, even if the Global South needs to reskill a younger population in a less technology-adept environment, it still needs to reform its education systems to meet future challenges. The caveat is that education systems in the Global South not only face future trials but are also still dealing with ghosts from the past.

While developing nations have managed to increase participation and expenditure in education in the past century, human capital accumulation remains low – particularly when measuring the quality of education. A case in point is Argentina. Its lower secondary enrolment rate has steadily increased, passing the 99% threshold in 2013; however, it ranked in the bottom 20% among the countries who participated in PISA in 2018. Overall, the system is improving access, but it is failing to convey skills and knowledge. Reforms need to go well beyond updating contents and curricula.

Reframe, then create

In short, the reskilling challenge in the Global South calls for a holistic and context-specific reframing exercise. Reskilling programmes should not take technological change for granted. Instead, they must be part of technology-promoting strategies that aim to expand the demand for such skills. These strategies should be transversal as needed. They may include improving digital public goods, financing technological equipment, and supporting firms, startups, and entrepreneurs, besides skilling per se.

Demography also plays a role: efforts to train adults cannot be at the expense of investment in formal education, particularly in countries with young populations. Therefore, education expenditure decisions should deliberately consider country-specific data that is related, for instance, to the number of school-age children relative to the workforce. Comparable data and standards highlighting best practices in this area would help policy makers.

Lastly, the need for reskilling should be understood as a complement and not a supplement of high-quality basic education, the foundation for the requisite levels of future workers. Amidst the technological and reskilling revolution, countries must still prioritise creating, assessing, and improving education performance indicators.   

The Global South is well aware that these periods of rapid technological change represent windows of opportunity to create a better future. But to build such a future, the Global South needs to find its own path when it comes to skills development and technological change.

There is a lot to learn from the innovations and failures that have come out of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The biggest lesson of all is that we live in an interconnected world; we need to work together to make it an equitable one. With particular attention to the voices of actors from the Global South, this series, in collaboration with Southern Voice, aims to identify solutions for an equitable recovery and to sustainably address power asymmetries among and within countries and regions.