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Ursula Fear, senior talent programme manager at Salesforce South Africa, dispels the extremes of AI mythos and highlights its true impact on the workforce. While anxiety looms over job displacement, Fear argues that AI’s potential for positive transformation is vast, boosting productivity, creativity, and innovation.
Since the dawn of the computational age, human beings have pursued the creation of machine intelligence. In fact, the question of what that Artificial Intelligence (AI) would look like and how it would impact our lives and the world around us has even been explored in our entertainment media – from the idyllic futuristic world of technological marvels in Star Trek on one end of the spectrum to the more pessimistic apocalyptic future of The Terminator on the other.
However, the reality of AI doesn’t live at either of those extremes and it’s certainly not as scary as many might think. Artificial Intelligence systems rather consist of software that is able to analyse datasets and make decisions or recommendations based on that information which would otherwise require a “human level of expertise”.
For today’s workforce, AI presents a new era of anxiety and concern as a means for employers to replace their positions with the autonomous work of machines.
According to a recent Microsoft survey, 49% of employees are afraid of losing their jobs to AI.
In reality, I believe the workforce has much more to gain than to fear from AI. As a matter of fact, AI has the potential to enable positive transformation in the workplace at scale that drives up productivity, making it easier to transfer skills while also facilitating an environment conducive to creativity and innovation.
It’s also clear that the capability of AI to drive the development of both global and local economies in a digital future, with the potential to contribute more than $15 trillion to the global economy by 2030 and give local economies a boost of up to 26% in GDP, means that the technology is simply here to stay. It’s just too beneficial for stimulating productivity growth and value creation.
AI as a driver of employment and skills generation
Although there are fears that AI and automation will lead to the loss of a large amount of jobs, the truth is that this technology will be an engine for job growth. According to Gartner, AI will create more jobs than it eliminates, reaching over two million net new jobs in 2025.
As such, AI holds great potential to help solve skills and job challenges in South Africa. This presents a significant opportunity to help address the concerningly high rate of unemployment in South Africa, currently positioned as the highest in the world at 32.9% in the first quarter of 2023, ensuring that not only are more people able to participate in but also contribute to the national economy.
This is particularly true for South Africa’s youth who are more often than not more technically and technologically inclined and yet continue to remain the most vulnerable within the labour market. Today, 4.9 million young people between the ages of 15 and 34 are unemployed.
Meanwhile, by using AI as a tool to enhance the employee experience through personalised training, targeted support and timely feedback, organisations are able to ensure better learning outcomes for skills development. In doing so, both employers and employees can better safeguard job security in a digital future.
Labour force must develop AI skills to remain competitive
AI excels at making the work experience less complicated by simplifying monotonous and repetitive tasks. In this regard, it can be a great labour saver for employees who would much rather be able to prioritise creative and critical tasks during their work hours.
As it happens, that same survey that showcased the workforce’s wariness to AI “stealing” their jobs found that 70% of people would delegate as much of their drudge work (such as finding the right information, summarising meetings and action items, and planning their day) as possible to AI to lessen their workloads. Additionally, 76% said they would be comfortable using AI for administrative tasks and 79% for analytical tasks.
And yet, South Africa’s limited AI skills, expertise and knowledge within the workforce continue to remain the biggest barrier to AI adoption despite all the benefits the technology brings to any organisation or industry. A recent survey found that at the senior management level more than 60% rated ‘low internal skill levels’ as the number one challenge facing AI adoption in the country.
This is not stopping us from pursuing the rapid adoption of AI however. Matched with this increasing demand, the low level of AI skills leaves those with the right skills at the top of the food chain.
Not only do they hold much more bargaining power, but by honing their AI skills, they ensure they always remain relevant in a constantly evolving landscape.
It’s clear then that AI serves much better as a tool to empower people than to simply replace them, and South Africa’s workforce better take advantage of its enabling abilities to ensure they remain competitive in the job market because it will be people with the right skill sets who will take your job long before any machine does.
- Ursula Fear is the senior talent programme manager at Salesforce South Africa.