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The Future of Work in Zambia

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In July 1966, the foundation for the future of work in Zambia was laid for the next five decades. The country’s first university, The University of Zambia, had officially opened and the matriculation of the first professionals was set in motion.

53 years later a university degree barely scratches the surface of what is required in the professional sphere. While the orthodox requirements such as academic acumen and professional expertise are still coveted, the advent of the fourth industrial revolution, disruptive innovations and globalisation demand a whole other set of skills.

In 2001, leading management consultant Ed Michaels drew attention to the strategic importance of human capital in the growth and expansion of not only organisations but nations. This was largely due to the advent of knowledge workers. Simply put, these are individuals who are required to think for a living and are able to apply their critical thinking and experiences to volatile and dynamic situations. Thus, the premise of Michaels’ argument was simply, if an organisation’s success hinges on the availability of people to enact its strategy, what happens in an instance where its human capital pool consists of less than ideal candidates? He surmised that there is an impending ‘war for talent’ and it would become increasingly difficult to obtain high value people.

The ability of the Zambian education system, tertiary and otherwise, to meet the need for a skilled workforce has often been called into question. And in 2018, Oxford University raised the criteria required for a graduate of the Zambian education system to access internationally coveted grants such as the Rhodes Scholarship. The supposed implication being that Zambian universities are not producing world class graduates. Furthermore, the ‘unreadiness’ of recent graduates and the lack of adaptability of the old guard to disruptive global headwinds is a daily narrative. When this is combined with the official unemployment rate of eight percent and organisations still struggling with talent acquisition, the answer to the question ‘Are we equipped to survive the war for talent?’ currently does not seem to be in the affirmative.

Of all the disruptive innovations of the 21st century, the ability to instantly communicate with anyone with an internet connection has revolutionised the way in which organisations can be structured. Typically, a central structure or central structures exist, where people work within the pre-set ‘9 to 5’ time period to carry out their various duties. Remote working, also known as flexi-work and telecommuting, is an arrangement in which employees do not always travel to a pre-assigned destination for work, but are able to work from wherever they are based. The advantages of this are twofold; firstly the employee is able to schedule their work around their life as opposed to the reverse. This has been found to increase employee satisfaction and productivity. Furthermore, organisations are able to reduce significant overheads such as property rentals. It should be noted that this practice is yet to pick up steam in the Zambian formal work sphere, resistance from employers and a lack of widespread high-speed internet across the country, among others, being cited as reasons.

Whilst the formal working sector works through the bureaucracy and kinks of remote working, the informal and semi-formal sector has decided to run with it and reap the numerous benefits. Entrepreneurs, gig-workers, and infoprenuers are on the rise in Zambia.

Management consultancy firm McKinsey estimates that 63 percent of the total labour force in Africa engages in some form of self-employment. The trend towards this form of work is predicted to continue growing, with people going back and forth between employment and project work. The benefits of this includes income opportunities that have low entry barriers, flexible working arrangements, and allow individuals to gain work experience in fields traditional employment would not allow. Furthermore, it presents an opportunity for those in formal employment to make additional income. The formal work sector will find itself hard pressed to continue resisting remote working in the long term.

Having laid out a road map of what the nation and organisation can expect from the future of work, what about individuals? Creativity, agility, and technology skills have been cited as key attributes required to succeed in tomorrow’s workplace. However, above all else Emotional Intelligence has been crowned the most required trait of the ‘future.’ Emotional intelligence or emotional quotient (EQ) is the capacity to be aware of and control one’s emotions as well as to handle interpersonal relationships cleverly and empathetically. Simply, it is the balance between the head and the heart. The business argument for EQ is that it leads to better staff collaboration, better customer service, higher sales and greater employee engagement. In a world where vast amounts of information are literally at your fingertips, production processes can be duplicated and transferred across continents, and automation is predicted to replace nearly 50 percent of all jobs, it makes sense that how we relate to ourselves and others will be key for the future of work.

Box: Global work trends and norms are rapidly evolving. Over five decades on after independence change in the local work sphere is inevitable and adaptability is a must. We ask what it takes for the Zambian workforce to stay relevant in this disruptive era.

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