Digital Skills

Fear of automation greatest among those getting fewest opportunities to upskill  

  • Over a third (34%) of adults without school education or training beyond school say they are not learning any new digital skills compared with just 17% of college graduates
  • 53% of workers believe automation will significantly change or make their job obsolete within the next ten years (only 28% feel this is unlikely)
  • 77% of adults would learn new skills now or completely retrain to improve their future employability

People given fewer opportunities to learn new digital skills are more fearful of the impact of automation and are more likely to have lower levels of education. These are the findings from new research carried out by PwC of 22,000 people across 11 countries worldwide (UK, US, South Africa, Germany, Netherlands, Australia, France, China, India, Singapore and Poland), and build on PwC’s economic analysis on the impact of automation on jobs. 2012 individuals were surveyed in South Africa.

While 53% of workers surveyed globally that believe automation will significantly change or make their job obsolete within the next ten years (only 28% felt this unlikely), the majority (61%) were positive about the impact of technology on their day-to-day work, and 77% of people would learn new skills now or completely retrain to improve their future employability.  

Seven in ten (70%) South African workers feel positive about the future impact of technology on their jobs. While the number is higher than European counterparts (61% for the UK and 52% for France) and Australian counterparts (50%), it is still a contrast to India and China where 88% and 85% respectively take the same view, even accounting for cultural bias.

Over half (56%) of South African adults worry that automation is putting jobs at risk, but when asked about their current job specifically, only 16% said they were nervous or scared about the future impact of technology, with women feeling more nervous/scared than men (21% vs. 12%).

Chantal Maritz, Strategy& Digital Transformation Lead at PwC says:

“All over the world jobs are changing – this is taking place at a rapid pace. The discrepancy between the skills people have and those needed for jobs in the digital world is one of the most critical issues in the workplace.

“It is a problem for businesses, individuals, governments and policy makers. It is in the interest of all stakeholders to collaborate and work together to solve this issue. “

However, opportunities and attitudes vary significantly by an individual’s level of education.  Location, gender and age also play a part.

Impact of education 

Degree-educated respondents are the most optimistic about technology and their future employment prospects - even though they believe their current job is likely to change significantly or be displaced.  

Conversely, over a third (34%) of adults without post-secondary school education or training say they are not learning any new digital skills compared with 17% of college graduates.

Those workers without education or training beyond high school are also less likely to be offered such training opportunities by their employers (38 % are getting no opportunities compared with 20% of graduate workers).  They are also more worried about the impact of technology on jobs, with 17% saying they are nervous or scared.

In South Africa over 70% of university educated people (72% of those educated at undergraduate level and 75% of those at postgraduate level) feel optimistic about the impact of technology on their jobs. Only 57% of those educated at school leaver level are more worried about the impact of technology on their jobs.

Furthermore, in South Africa, 90% of workers are learning new skills to better understand technology - 87% are educated to school leaver level, 92% are educated to undergraduate and postgraduate level. Three quarters (75%) are learning independently and 24% are learning through their employer. 

Maritz comments:

“Upskilling is about taking the skills people currently have and making them more relevant for the future.

Preparing the next generation for a mind-set of lifelong learning is critical to drive South Africa’s competitiveness in the face of the fourth industrial revolution that is upending the nature of work across the world.”

South Africa’s youth face numerous socio-economic challenges including unemployment, poverty and inequality. High unemployment rates among youth between the ages of 15 to 24 years are among some of the most frequently cited indicators of the difficulty young people face in making the transition from school to employment.

Despite recent improvements in the youth’s education levels, many businesses still find it difficult to fill vacancies, especially those requiring specialist skills.

Demographic differences

It’s not only education that has a bearing on opportunities and attitudes. Across different demographic groups, the data indicates those people who have more opportunity to learn new skills are more likely to be positive about the impact of technology. 

Globally, men are more likely than women to think that technology will have a positive impact on jobs and improve their employment prospects.  They are also more likely to be learning new skills (80% of the men surveyed say they are doing so versus 74% of women).  

It is notable than in South Africa, women feel almost doubly nervous as men about technology’s impact - 21% vs. 12%.  In keeping with global trends, men get more opportunities to upskill than women - 81% vs. 69%. Almost three-quarters (71%) of ages 18-34 feel positively about it, whereas only 63% of ages 55+ agree.

Globally, 18-34-year olds are more optimistic about the digital future than any other adult age group.  They are also getting more training opportunities.  For example, 69% of 18-34-year olds feel positively about the future impact of technology on their job, compared with 59% of 35-54-year olds, and 50% of those aged 55+.  Only 18% of 18-34-year olds say are being given no opportunities to learn new digital skills by their employer.  For 35-54-year olds and those aged 55+ the figures are 29% and 38% respectively.

People are split on the skills they want to learn.  Similar proportions want to become proficient in a specific technology to those wanting to become better at learning and adapting to different technologies.

Carol Stubbings, Joint Global Leader for People and Organisation, and partner at PwC UK, said:

“Not everyone needs to be able to write code but they do need to understand how technology will change the world of work and how it can benefit them.  Upskilling is about creating a culture of continuous learning and curiosity, and this is something many organisations are grappling with.   Too often assumptions are made about the type of worker who should be upskilled, and a vicious cycle emerges whereby people are left behind. 

With people facing longer working lives, upskilling is all the more important.  Improving digital skills could also help improve productivity growth, which remains low despite trillions of dollars of tech investment each year.”

Country comparisons

Looking across the markets surveyed, workers in China and India are by far the most upbeat about the impact of technology (even after adjusting for cultural bias), despite being the most likely to believe their jobs will change significantly. Workers in these regions are getting more opportunities to upskill:  97% and 95% respectively are being given these opportunities by their employers.   On the other hand, workers in the UK and Australia say they are given the least opportunity to learn new skills. They tend to be less positive about the impact of technology.  

Whether people live in rural or urban locations also has a bearing on their attitudes toward technology.  For example, 67% of city dwellers believe their job prospects will be improved by technology (48% in rural areas), and 80% are being given upskilling opportunities by their employers, compared with 60% of workers residing in rural communities. 

Richard Oldfield, Global Markets Leader at PwC, added:

“Our research gives a glimpse into the opportunity gap for adapting to the automated world.  Given the people completing our survey are more likely to be digitally aware, the picture across the wider population is likely to be more pronounced.”

The survey builds on PwC research showing that 30% of jobs are at risk from automation by the mid-2030s  based on analysis across 29 countries.  Meanwhile, PwC’s 2019 annual CEO survey shows that the availability of skills is a top concern for 79% of CEOs.


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Sanchia  Temkin

Sanchia Temkin

Senior Manager, Media Relations, PwC South Africa

Tel: +27 (0) 11 797 4470

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