South Africa is starting to feel the impact of automation and technology on employment, with jobs growth slowing even as skills shortages grow.
Kathy Gibson attended the presentation of PwC’s 21st survey of 1 293 CEOs around the world.

The survey reveals that 37% of South African CEOs — compared to 58% in 2016 — plan to increase their headcount in 2018, while 54% of global CEOs plan to increase their headcount.

Meanwhile, 18% of CEOs globally, compared to 22% of CEOs in South Africa, expect to reduce their headcount. Two-thirds of South African CEOs say this is mainly due to automation and other technologies.

On digital skills specifically, over a quarter (28%) of CEOs are extremely concerned about their availability within the country they are based, rising to 49% being “extremely concerned” in South Africa, 51% in China and 59% in Brazil.

“CEOs need to ensure their companies are fit for the digital age, and have the skills required,” Dion Shango, CEO of PwC Southern Africa, points out.

While recent research by PwC found that workers were optimistic about technology improving their job prospects, CEOs admit that helping employees retrain, and increasing transparency on how automation and artificial intelligence (AI) could impact jobs is becoming a more important issue for them

Two-thirds of CEOs globally, compared to 67% in South Africa, believe they have a responsibility to retrain employees whose roles are replaced by technology. In order to prepare for the digital age the majority of CEOs (91%), compared to 90% of CEOs in South Africa, strongly agree that they need to strengthen soft skills such as teamwork and communication alongside digital skills.

More than two-thirds of South African CEOs say they are taking action on a number of fronts — ranging from the way they work, to engaging external service providers and improving remuneration and training for their staff.

“The sense of social responsibility and civil duty to ensure that, before someone is laid off, whether they can be re-equipped to pay other meaningful roles with in the organisation,” Shango says.

The top steps that CEOs are taking to attracts and develop key skills include modernising the working environment, implementing new and flexible working arrangement, and partnering with the other providers.

Echoing the theme of the World Economic Forum taking place this week, CEOs acknowledge that we live in a fractured world. They are divided over whether future economic growth will benefit the many or the few. They see the world moving towards new, multifaceted metrics to measure future prosperity.

Shango comments: “CEOs across every region and country recognise that the world is moving away from measuring prosperity primarily through financial measures (such as GDP) and towards a more integrated approach that ‘measures prosperity through multifaceted metrics (such as quality-of-life indices).”

Defining those metrics and capturing the data to accurately measure them will be a priority item on the business agenda in the coming years.

Trust is a massive issue for business, Shango says, and this is particularly true for South African CEOs now.

“Companies cannot act in isolation; business is not an island. Businesses need to be a force for good; they need to be seen to be contributing to society. This means having a common purpose and set of values that every person in the company demonstrates.”

Regarding trust for businesses, 60% of CEOs globally admit that delivering results in shorter periods of time (South Africa: 71%) is a challenge. There has also been a significant shift with the majority reporting higher levels of pressure to hold individual leaders to account (global: 51%; South Africa: 83%), including for misconduct. Over a third report more pressure from employees and customers to take political and social stances (global: 38%; South Africa: 78%).

CEOs are trying to build trust and transparency, by increasing diversity and inclusion policies (97%); employees’ contributing to the overall business results (97%); the organisation’s values (95%); their people strategy (87%); and compensations and benefits strategy (85%).

Despite geopolitical uncertainty, corporate misconduct and the impact of artificial intelligence on the future job market, the majority of CEOs are still optimistic about the economic environment.

Fifty-seven percent of global business leaders say they believe global economic growth will improve in the next 12 months. This percentage is almost twice the level of last year (29%) and the largest ever increase since PwC began asking about global growth in 2012.

In fact, indications are that 2018 will be the best year for many economies in many years, says Shango.

CEOs in South Africa are less confident than their global counterparts regarding their growth prospects in 2018.

Only 22% of CEOs in South Africa are “very confident” of their company’s own growth in the next 12 months — 20 points below the global average (42%).

The country experienced low growth in 2017, driven by high unemployment, rating downgrades and political and policy uncertainty.

However, Shango believes there has been an uptick in confidence since the beginning of this year, thanks to recent political moves.

South African CEOs — 37%, compared to 45% globally — are slightly more confident about their own company’s prospects for revenue growth over the next three years. In addition, 37% of South African CEOs also expect global economic growth to improve in the next 12 months — 20 points below the global average.

South African CEO’s confidence in their own companies has thus declined by 12% since last year, and hit the lowest point since PwC has been conducting the survey.

“In South Africa we know that their experience in the last year has been different to the rest of the world. It’s sad that we miss a fantastic opportunity. Battling to get out of the 1,5% to 2% range, surely there must be something we can do to attract investment and stimulate the growth we so badly need.”

He adds: “CEOs’ optimism in South Africa is more tempered than that of the developed economies, especially regarding their own organisations’ prospects for revenue growth. The state of the economy, unemployment and political uncertainty, among other issues, are casting a shadow over business expectations.”

Another point to consider, says Shango, is that almost half of CEOs have been in office for five years or less, so they have never led their current companies through a downturn. Global research indicates that CEOs who have been in the position for more than 10 years tend to be more optimistic for the economy and the performance of their own companies.

Organic growth is still the biggest driver for expected growth at 80%. This is followed by cost reduction at 59%, a new strategic alliance or joint venture at 56%. Mergers and acquisitions comes in at 44%, selling a business at 32% and collaboration with entrepreneurs or start-ups at 27%.

South African companies are looking to international markets for growth, with 32% of them eyeing the US and 27% to the UK. China has moved off the top spot, from 36% last year to 24% this year. India comes in at 17% and Germany at 12%.

Africa is also in South African CEOs’ sights: Mozambique is a growth prospect for 12%, Botswana and Zambia at 10%, and Kenya, Nigeria and Namibia at 7%.

Looking at CEO confidence by country, it’s a mixed bag. CEOs’ outlook improved in several key markets, including in Australia (up 4% to 46%) and China (up 4% t0 40%), where the share of CEOs saying they are “very confident” in their own organisation’s 12-month growth prospects rose.

In the US, CEOs’ confidence has recovered. After the US general election last year, the early focus on regulation and tax reform by the new administration has seen confidence in business growth prospects for the year ahead rising significantly — from 39% in 2017 to 52% in 2018. North America is the only region where a majority of CEOs are “very confident” about their own 12-month prospects.

In the UK, with Brexit negotiations only recently reaching a significant milestone, business leaders’ drop in short-term confidence is unsurprising (2018: 34% versus 2017: 41%).

CEO confidence in the US market extends overseas, with non-US based CEOs once again voting it the top market for growth in the next 12 months. This year, the US reinforces its lead on China (46% US versus 33% China, with the US lead over China up 2% compared with 2017). Germany (20%) remains in third place, followed by the UK (15%) in fourth place, while India bumps Japan as the fifth most attractive market in 2018.

CEOs across the world are increasingly concerned about broader societal threats — such as geopolitical uncertainty, terrorism, the rise of populism, and climate change — in addition to direct business risks such as cyber threats and the speed of technological change.

South African CEOs’ concerns around a broad range of business, societal and economic threats have risen. CEOs are “extremely concerned” about social instability (South Africa: 98%; global: 73%); over-regulation (South Africa: 93%; global: 83%); unemployment (South Africa: 93%; global: 50%); uncertain economic growth (South Africa: 93%; global: 74%); exchange rate volatility (South Africa: 90%; global: 70%); and populism (South Africa: 88%; global: 77%).

“These are local problems, to which we need local solutions,” says Shango. “There are no short-cut solutions. We really need to bed down these issues. One hopes there will be a better relationship and understanding between business and government so team South Africa can stand as one.”

These macro threats are more concerning to CEOs than they were last year.

Of business threats, 37% of South Africa CEOs (compared to 38% globally) said they were “extremely concerned” about the availability of key skills, 41% (compared to 40% globally) cited cyber threats, and 32% (compared to 38% globally) stated the speed of technological change as concerns.

It is notable that 22% of South African CEOs (compared to 14% globally) stated that they are “extremely concerned” about potential ethical scandals. This comes in the wake of a growing number of firms that have suffered reputational damage in the past year because of ethical lapses.

In addition, 39% of South African CEOs (global: 32%) believe that changes in core technologies of production or service provision, such as artificial intelligence, will be very disruptive for their business over the next five years. A fifth of South African CEOs (20%), compared to 23% globally, think that changes in industry regulation will also be very disruptive to businesses over the next five years.

A year after the Paris Agreement was signed by 190 nations, which saw countries commit to voluntary action on climate change and low carbon investment, CEOs’ concern about the threat of climate change and environmental damage to growth prospects has now doubled to 31% of global CEOs (South Africa: 24%).

This year, 80% of South African CEOs (compared to 79% globally), plan to expand by way of organic growth in the next 12 months. In addition, 56% of CEOs (compared to 47% globally) plan to enter into a new strategic alliance or joint venture, and only 44% (compared to 42%) globally) propose a new M&A. Fifty-nine percent of local CEOs (compared to 62% globally) plan to implement a cost-reduction initiative.

The global survey results, based in interviews with almost 1 300 CEOs from 85 countries, were released at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos yesterday. In South Africa, 41 CEOs from a broad spectrum of listed and privately-owned companies participated in the online survey.