For years, experts around the world have been talking about the coming transformation of work: jobs that don’t yet exist, skills that schools are not equipped to teach, linear career paths disappearing, and new kinds of tools, workplaces and workflows emerging. This has been mostly theoretical: until very recently, work itself, our beliefs about it, and all its associated systems — from recruiting to further education — still looked remarkably as they did half a century ago.

Accelerated by a global health pandemic, the “future of work” has arrived unannounced and before many were ready. Armchair hypotheses are being tested and accelerated because of the crisis, forcing us to reckon with the strange demands of our new present, whose edges seem to blur into an uncertain future.

And yet, every crisis creates an opening. The COVID-19 crisis has created an opening to imagine and architect a future of work for inclusion and resilience. Alongside the health and economic impact of this pandemic, we are also seeing signs of resourcefulness, urgent cooperation, and the will to embrace systemic change. As Rebecca Solnit writes in The Guardian: “At moments of immense change, we see with new clarity the systems — political, economic, social, ecological — in which we are immersed as they change around us.” This is sweeping away old assumptions, creating a space into which we can pour in new ideas, partnerships and collaborations.

Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator has a particular perspective — both global and uniquely African — on these accelerating shifts. For nearly a decade, we have grappled with barriers to employment and growing inequality. In South Africa, where we are based, we have learned first-hand that the “status quo” of recruitment and hiring practices often has unintended consequences, locking many out of opportunity and perpetuating a slow-motion crisis of generation-crippling unemployment and poverty. We’ve had to contend with this crisis of low economic growth and exclusion well before COVID-19; the global pandemic has now laid bare the underlying structural inequities and systemic barriers to inclusion.

We have also learned that while some barriers are deeply entrenched, it is possible to rewire our systems of work in ways that improve the outcomes for everyone — making an inclusive labour market an economic imperative, not just a moral one. Some of our longest-standing lessons have been confirmed over these past few months, and the pandemic has shed new light on them. In looking ahead to what is possible, we bring forward these lessons to share with a world that is grappling with some of these big challenges.

To the paralysis of fear, these lessons offer the balm of action backed by evidence.

1. Love the problem, not your solution.

A vacuum company shifts to producing ventilators. A prosthetic manufacturer starts making medical visors. Organizations across Africa are mobilising assets, engineers and funding in service of public outcomes like shifting to digital payments, mining data,and last-mile delivery of PPE. Like Harambee, organizations of all sizes and types are attempting the ‘coronavirus pivot’.

What these shapeshifters seem to have in common is an ability to activate their culture, relationships and assets to meet the unforeseen need at hand. This is a lesson we have been learning since our first years, as early attempts to “solve and scale” met the reality of ever-shifting political and economic conditions. We are committed to “loving the problem,” not staying in love with our solutions.

Even before South Africa announced a national lockdown, Harambee shifted focus from “how can we keep delivering our solutions?” to “what are the emergent dimensions of the problem?” We took first precautionary — and then legislated — measures to suspend all face-to-face activities. We reconfigured our people and platforms to quickly re-engage with young people, government and the private sector. Within a few days of the state of disaster announcement, Harambee adopted a simple, values-based principle to guide our actions: be safe, be smart, be kind. It’s a mantra that we reiterate at every opportunity, including our daily morning standup call regularly joined by hundreds of our staff, their families and our partners. This way of being — practiced every single morning at 8:00am — embodies all that we’ve learned on our nine-year journey to build a culture that’s resilient to a future of work where change is the only constant.

With the advancement of the coronavirus outbreak and further lockdown measures, we knew that we had to rapidly deploy our biggest asset — our channels to reach young people in need via social media, SMS, WhatsApp, and mobisite — with information that they could trust. In collaboration with South Africa’s Solidarity Fund and the National Youth Development Agency, we launched a campaign to reach 3 million youth in the first 3 weeks of lockdown, empowering them to manage their information overload and anxiety as they navigated the lockdown. Since then, a coalition of over 200 partners (ranging from youth development groups to educational institutions to employers) has achieved a reach of 6 million, lifting up youth voices in a meaningful way. We continue to pivot to a deeper engagement strategy that empowers young people to become even more self-reliant, whether training them to become ‘fake news fighters,’ giving them targeted tips for remaining employable, or by celebrating stories of resilience.

Shortly after we launched our youth campaigns, we underwent perhaps our most significant pivot this year. South Africa’s Department of Employment and Labour — tasked with disbursing the country’s largest government relief fund — was overwhelmed with citizen queries and did not have the capacity to respond. Harambee stepped in to operate the call centre for the Unemployment Insurance Fund — scaling up our technology platform to handle the tens of thousands of calls coming in daily, as the UIF system was only designed to handle 250 concurrent calls. Over a 50-day period, Harambee answered over 1,000,000 calls from South Africans employers and employees in need. We scaled up the UIF’s capability from 26,000 calls a week with a 33% answer rate to over 200,000 calls a week with a 99% answer rate — all in less than ten weeks. This is a level of rapid scale up with results that many in the industry would acknowledge is rare to achieve.

This support enabled the Unemployment Insurance Fund to disburse over R26 billion (USD ±2 billion) to 150,000 businesses and well over 2 million workers, ensuring they were able to keep their jobs and avoid layoffs and retrenchments. The Unemployment Insurance Fund’s COVID-19 relief scheme has been recognised as the most successful government programmes to date in terms of the amount of funding that was disbursed so quickly and widely.

With no clear end in sight for COVID-19, the future is uncertain. Organisations must build their ‘pivot-readiness’ by investing deeply in culture, relationships and practices that will allow them to stay focused on the problem at hand — and not just on their existing solutions.

2. We cannot just re-open economies — we need to reimagine them, together.

As an Africa-based youth employment accelerator, we have learned how to avoid trading off inclusion for economic growth. Prior to COVID-19, over 60% of youth in South Africa were not in education, work or training. It was clear that today’s jobs could never absorb tomorrow’s work-seekers. We were already committed to actively driving new job creation with the private sector and government, building an approach in the global business services sector that saw government adopt inclusive hiring incentives for foreign direct investment that doubled the size of the industry within two years.

The imperative to bolster economic growth inclusively is made even clearer now than ever before. With the economic shocks caused by COVID-19, we have even fewer jobs now, and entire sectors of the economy may be wiped out or become even more jobless because of accelerated automation. The language of market winners and losers seems insufficient for what is possible, and does not capture the collaboration that is required to reimagine the future. The choices we make now — to reinvent ourselves and retool our organizations — cannot become zero-sum. We have seen that it is indeed possible to remake markets such that they grow, inclusively — having co-created a plan set to grow new jobs in the digital economy from 50,000 to 500,000 by 2030. Now is the time to lean into the intentional collaboration needed by stakeholders across the private and public sector to re-imagine how we buy, produce, supply and interact.

If the pandemic has revealed the deeply flawed ways in which humans have organized economies and societies, it also reveals our mutual interdependencies and our collaborative capabilities. Harambee has shown that making markets — together — is an alternative to traditional tradeoffs between growth and inclusion.

3. All work counts.

The COVID-19 pandemic will have far-reaching economic ramifications — and Africa will not be spared. Economies will contract and formal jobs will become even more scarce. Now more than ever, we must shift the frame from ‘jobs’ to ‘work’ and make sure that all work counts — whether it is work for an employer, work for oneself, or work for a community.

We know from experience that while young people may not always have a formal ‘job’, they are rarely idle, often keeping busy through volunteering, hustling, or doing piece work. And for many young women, they also carry the additional hidden labour of household chores and care for others. Harambee’s experiences underscore the point that we need to make all of this work “count” — both for the young person, in terms of improved wages and skilling, but also for her to communicate the value of this work to society through improved credentialing and skilling, and an ability to “stack up” these very real and valuable experiences.

We have learned that by engaging youth in work experiences, we can make visible a ladder of opportunity for developing the attributes that lead to successful income generation, establishing a business or finding a formal job. At the same time, we need to partner with government to employ young people to do some of the work to address the already exacerbated social ills. Young people can act as the solution to problems in their communities if they are given the opportunity. The Youth Brigades in Gauteng are an example where young people have been deployed to monitor compliance with new COVID-19 protocols in public schools. Harambee will partner with government to ensure that these public employment programmes leverage youth potential and provide a stepping stone to the next opportunity.

If we are to work our way out of the devastating economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to figure out new opportunities for young people in both the formal and the informal sector, and to make all these forms of work count. What if we organized systems — of credentialing and pay — around existing work of all kinds, rather than the other way around?

4. Pathways to opportunity are not linear.

Even before COVID-19, every year, nearly two thirds of young people in South Africa who exit schools were unable to access further education, training or employment. Their pathways to opportunity were broken. Now, young people are likely to exit the schooling system and struggle even more to find a linear path to their first job or work experience. Those excluded from the formal job market may never find a way in and those who do grab a first foothold in the economy will bounce in and out of employment. Disruption across value chains is challenging our definition of a job, showing that some opportunities to earn can exist even where a traditional employer does not.

One certainty after 9 years is Harambee’s belief that pathways to opportunity are not linear, and that more training will not solve the problem. We have seen that lengthy and expensive training programmes rarely lead to employment or in-demand skills. We have partnered with young people, industry and government to embrace alternative outreach, evaluation, hiring, training and investment approaches that dignify entry-level work, lead to higher performance and can even generate new, inclusive job growth.

The pandemic has allowed us to re-imagine rules of the game in promising ways. Across the world, students are being deployed to “work” in service of the frontline defense against the virus — from medical students rapidly bootcamped into hospitals to boost capacity, and furloughed service workers retrained and deployed in the food supply chain. We are learning that many skills are more transferable than we thought, and training can be done better, cheaper, and faster — when the job demands. Rethinking the value of and pathways into jobs will characterise the future of work.

5. Put young women and men at the centre. Keep them there.

Since the start of South Africa’s lockdown in late March, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, together with over 250 youth organization partners, deployed its engagement channel infrastructure to reach millions of young people in South Africa. We’ve spent much of our time in lockdown really listening to what young people are saying they need, in turn powering an improved country response for those that are hard to reach.

Listening to our young people reinforced that they are struggling — they had lost work and income, particularly those that were self-employed and hustling. They are struggling with the basics — including access to food and enough water to wash their hands. They don’t have affordable data to get online and stay online for skills building and job search. They are also struggling with their mental health as they try to stay safe and busy.

Our coalition of partners mobilised to respond. We shared information with young people on how to access food parcels and water — and watched them share tips with each other about how to manage with limited resources. We ramped up access to mental health resources to help young people adapt. We offered data-free channels (with costs reversed to Harambee) for them to get online and stay connected. We continue to update them on the cheapest data packages to buy.

We discovered that young people feel most hopeful when they are made aware of the recovery numbers — not only the infected numbers — and the stories of survivors. They respond when we speak with them and not at them. We share information through stories, like our Bona Corona comic and radio series and Facebook live chats with celebrities they admire. They are panicked by fake news but are calmed when it’s debunked. By empowering them to check facts themselves, they can serve as “fake news fighters” and powerful ambassadors for positive behaviour change.

The capacity of a young person to help power economic recovery is as multi-dimensional as their life, and the more dimensions we engage across, the more potential we can unleash. Harambee has spent nearly a decade building a network that does just this, via channels that can reach, listen to, empower, and amplify those voices.

This response to COVID-19 brings our vision of an inclusive, resilient future of work closer and more achievable than we may have thought. The pandemic lays bare the structural inequities and systemic barriers to inclusion across the world, underscoring the need to design more inclusive futures. This presents a unique window of opportunity to architect a more just and inclusive future for young women and men. Let us not watch this window close.

*

The original article was published on 11 July 2020 by Kate Boydell and Sharmi Surianarain. Access it here: https://medium.com/@sharmisurianarain/the-future-of-work-5-lessons-ring-true-as-harambee-enters-its-10th-year-69eb5e82150a

Image Credit: Botswana Unplugged, Increasing Africa Trade

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