The future is a numbers game

The Internet of Things (IoT) and digital technologies are “disrupting” traditional industries the world over at a phenomenal rate.

To compete at a global level, South Africa will have to keep pace by also undergoing a Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). This is an era that is characterised by the integration of, among others, digital technologies, biology and the physical worlds. It also involves the deployment of sophisticated technologies, such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, robotics, 3D printing, the IoT and advanced wireless systems.

The country’s seamless transition into this new era of efficiency and high productivity levels is largely dependent upon a robust pipeline of people with very specialised skills.

Government has already made known its intentions to accelerate South Africa’s new industrial revolution. This follows a long period of deindustrialisation as is evident by the closure of many factories and industrial plants. These have been replaced by warehouses full of imported goods that have been manufactured more cost effectively in other countries. The decimation is already being evidenced in the local steel sector which is shutting plants that provide employment for many people, turning cities into potential “ghost towns”.

However, the need for local industries to embrace new technologies to improve their ability to compete is a very sensitive topic considering the country’s unique political landscape. Policy makers have, thus, also acknowledged the need to implement the process very carefully. It will have to be guided by the private sector and the unions, the voice of many workers.

The country is already struggling with high levels of unemployment, a situation that can also be attributed to the very low skills of a large section of the population. For example, many people living in rural communities are unable to read and write English and do not have basic maths skills. There will be very little hope for them ever gaining secure employment in an era that is already threatening traditional high skilled jobs, such as engineering, in developed economies where there has been an increased uptake of 4IR technologies. Institutions of higher learning are even struggling to keep pace with changing skills requirements, with significant shortfalls in capable people needed to drive these sophisticated industries envisaged in the future.

To help alleviate high unemployment, many of South Africa’s primary industries, such as mining, agriculture, manufacturing and construction, have been incentivised to adopt production methods that rely extensively on labour. This has been at the expense of the implementation of mechanisation and automation that have significantly bolstered production and efficiencies in other countries of the world.

The outcome of this approach is poor production and drastic increases in wages, while companies also grapple with other soaring input costs, such as electricity, that have eroded their capacity to compete on the world stage. This is not to mention the role that these policies, although well intended, have played in driving up levels of income inequality in the country.

Jobs that are being created for unskilled people are often of a short duration and skills. Training provided during this period is limited to simple tasks that require basic competencies. They do not offer any real potential to lift communities out of poverty as they have not acquired scarce skills that are in high demand and, therefore, pay decent wages that cover soaring living expenses. This is in addition to covering the costs of basic requirements, such as healthcare and quality education for children.

A sustainable solution entails focusing on developing skills for new industries that will bolster South Africa’s competitiveness globally. This will help grow and develop a robust economy with vibrant industries that are able to absorb the many unemployed citizens, the vast majority of who comprise of young South Africans with no hope for a future.

Counting the losses

Literacy and numbers skills are a prerequisite in any modern workplace and those who possess this competency will, therefore, greatly increase their employability.

Numerate people can effectively manage and respond to the mathematical demands that are presented in diverse situations. For example, they can apply logic with confidence and competence, while also understanding how data is gathered and presented in diagrams, graphs, tables and charts in the workplace. This is a common means of efficiently communicating important information in most businesses.

People also need to be able to integrate maths and communication skills in daily life, considering that words are used to translate numerical code and give it meaning.

Unfortunately, more attention seems to be paid to addressing basic literacy needs than to poor numeracy skills in the workplace. Substandard literacy skills are also often deemed to be less acceptable than innumeracy in social settings.

The reality is that innumeracy can be a significant impediment in daily life. There is ample evidence demonstrating the high correlation between poor maths skills and bad decisions, as well as the misinterpretation of risk. In extenuating circumstances, it has even led to financial ruin.

A highly innumerate population also impedes economic performance. It manifests in the overdependence on limited state resources by the unemployed and severe productivity losses in the workplace.

Grade 9 mathematics scores by percentage range

RangePercentage of scores
Less than 30%91,9
30% to 39%3,8
40% to 49%2,1
50 to 59%1,1
60% to 69%0,6
70% to 79%0,3
80% and over0,2%
[Source:]Simkins 2013, report for CDE, Performance in the South African Educational System: What do we know?

South Africa’s adult literacy rate, encompassing numeracy

[Credit:] Knoema

South Africa’s literacy rate, encompassing numeracy

Youth literacy rate99%
Youth illiteracy111 600
Youth female illiteracy34,3%
Adult illiteracy2 168 862
Adult female illiteracy60,2%
Elderly literacy rate72,1%
Elderly illiteracy rate772 916
Elderly female illiteracy74,7%
[Credit:] Knoema

In the shadows

Triple E Training continues to work with leading companies to help them improve the basic numbers skills and basic literacy levels of their workforce.

The company’s adult basic education and training (ABET) programmes have helped many low skilled employees progress in their careers by equipping them with the competencies that they need to assume additional responsibilities. This has helped to also retain skills and intellectual property, while also saving costs and time in training new employees.

Those who have completed the company’s training programmes are also more confident in performing their daily tasks without relying extensively on their managers and supervisors. This has relieved resources that are now being used more efficiently and productively in other areas of the business. Time and costs are also being saved through improved accuracy in the workplace after the company’s training interventions.

Importantly, most people who have completed Triple E Training’s adult education and training (AET) programmes gain a passion for learning and the confidence they need to participate in other workplace training programmes that they may have avoided due to a lack of skills.

Triple E Training has noted an increase in demand for its adult learning programmes, especially numeracy training, over the years.

Businesses also want a professional evaluation of the level of their workers’ maths skills to determine the extent and type of intervention that is required from their accredited training provider.

It is becoming more difficult to assess these competencies considering the rapid rate at which technology is advancing. Employees who have poor basic numeracy skills are often able to “hide” behind technology that has become increasingly saturated by numbers. While these systems may help employees with some functions in the workplace, such as organising and planning, its true potential is limited to the skills level of the operator.

In some instances, innumerate people avoid exposing their shortcomings by relying heavily on social support networks and coping methods that they adapt to specific settings. This adds another level of complexity to identifying innumeracy in the workplace.

Some managers may be uncomfortable about approaching employees about their innumeracy. This is understandable as they may not want to embarrass or demotivate team members. If handled incorrectly, it may even result in unwanted conflict in the workplace.

This is one of the reasons why so many employers are now using numerical aptitude tests to assess candidates who have applied for positions before appointing them on a permanent basis. Interventions such as these have augmented their ABET programmes.

Do you believe that you have a numeracy problem in your business? Triple E Training will be able to assist you with our accredited ABET or AET for employed people.

Changing Lives Together