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According to reports by the World Economic Forum (WEF), there are 218 million unemployed people who have been left out of the growth economy, and a further 295 million young people who are neither employed nor being educated. What do these people do all day?A human rights activist named Mohamed Ali tells the story of two young men in Somalia who left their villages to find work in Mogadishu. They were living in a war-torn shantytown, waiting for a break. The first was lured by an ideological opportunity and became a car bomber, killing himself and others; the second started planting flowers around the city. He now has a thriving landscaping business and runs workshops to teach entrepreneurial skills. “Entrepreneurship,” he says, “is the most powerful tool to help young people create their own economic opportunities.”

The race between man and machine

The vast majority of people want to work. It brings purpose to their lives. But the world of work is in turmoil. Each phase of the industrial revolution, from the first steam powered mechanical manufacturing facilities to today’s cyber-physical systems, has caused massive disruption in the workforce. As certain skills and professions became obsolete, others evolved to replace them. However, mechanization and digitization have reached new heights, and machines and computers can now do the tasks that teachers and salespeople and just about everyone else did in the past.

Our deepest fears seem to be materializing: will we even need a human workforce in the future? Rest assured; we will. According to the statistics in the WEF report, by 2020 there will be a global surplus of 90 million low-skilled workers and a shortfall of 85 million skilled workers.

Karolina Telejko is a political scientist who participated in one of SAP’s recent Code Weeks. This initiative tackles the digital skills gap by teaching kids job-relevant coding skills. In 2016, the program reached 470,000 young people in Africa alone; other code weeks took place in Europe and the Middle East.

Describing her experience, Karolina writes that “at the beginning of each coding workshop, when asked who is more intelligent, humans or computers, many children answer ‘computers’. But as they start writing their first commands for a robot to cross the room, it suddenly dawns on them that they are now in charge of the machine, and they can instruct it to do exactly what they want.”

Just like the Somali entrepreneur helps people discover economic opportunities, coding helps youngsters understand that they can be in control of their destinies – if they have the right skills.

Skills for the future

“In the future, any kind of job is going to have a digital component,” says Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft. “It doesn’t mean everyone’s got to be a computer scientist.”

Consider the top three skills companies will be looking for in 2020, as identified by the WEF Future of Jobs report: complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. In fact, since 2015, two new skills have made it to the list of what will be the ten most sought after skills in three years’ time: emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility.

This means people will be hired for their skills and not their credentials, but these traits are hard to acquire in today’s traditional educational systems. New ways of learning are necessary. In fact, thanks to the fast pace of change, staying up to speed will require a continuous learning mindset.

Antony Gatuke, a graduate of the SAP Skills for Africa program, says, “In high school, I thought the key to business was accounting, so that’s what I studied. Later I found out that businesses run on enterprise management systems, and if I wanted to enter that world, I would need a whole new skill set.” Today Antony works as consultant for Indra on SAP implementations. “The program completely changed my life,” he says.

Education, Gender and Work

To achieve a sustainable workforce for the long term, we must close that gap between the surplus of unskilled workers and the shortfall of skilled ones. Besides fostering an entrepreneurial culture, we must take an unbiased approach to hiring and training people to be productive in the digital economy.

Women, for example, are being targeted by private and public stakeholders as key contributors to the digital economy. Thanks to numerous gender equality initiatives around the world, it is not uncommon today to encounter a fashion model who is also a computer programmer or an inventor who grew up tinkering with radios and TVs instead of playing with Barbie dolls.

When SAP recently became the first tech company to receive the Economic Dividends for Gender Equality (EDGE) certification, CEO Bill McDermott commented that this marks a major milestone in SAP’s ongoing efforts to eliminate bias in the workplace.  Another one of those efforts is the Business Beyond Bias program which helps leaders make unbiased hiring decisions using functionality to reduce discrimination during the recruiting process.

With efforts like these, SAP, and many like-minded companies, are helping diverse populations and communities around the world gain access to the digital economy in alignment with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Together, we can surely move the needle.

Follow me on Twitter @magyarj

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