Ever-advancing technology combined with a fast-evolving business landscape means that the skills needs of modern labour markets are constantly changing. Many of the skills that are crucial to businesses and employees today will be obsolete in less than ten years and will be replaced by a demand for skills sets that today we cannot even imagine.
Of course, there will always be skills that are specific to professions – from electrician to dentist to computer programmer – and these need to be trained through particular education and apprenticeships. But as technology creeps into our workplaces, opportunities for unskilled workers are falling significantly. As the nature of work is changing, workers need to be equipped with a broader range of skills to remain employable. Just as it is no longer sufficient to be able to read and count, nor is it enough to be able to just use a computer. Today it is necessary to be able to think creatively, coordinate with others, negotiate, solve complex problems and more.
These so-called “cognitive” and “soft” skills are what make workers flexible and adaptable to change. Yet, they are often inadequately addressed or allocated little time within standard education systems. They can be taught later on, but training opportunities must be available in order that workers can learn them. Ultimately, having the right skills set depends on people’s readiness to learn throughout their lives. I believe that we need to take a more strategic approach to skilling, one that truly enables learnability.
Firstly, all skills sets should be covered. For youngsters still in the education system, this can happen within the school environment and we need to ensure that schools and universities stay close to the labour market, understand its evolving skills needs and adapt in order to train people appropriately. We also need to encourage apprenticeship contracts so that youngsters leaving school and starting out in the labour market are able to acquire relevant competencies and learn within the workplace.
Secondly, for those of us already in the workplace, policies need to be introduced that enable us to catch-up and acquire new abilities in later life. Crucial to realising this is to remove any barriers to skills development and set in place a system of life-long learning. By implementing policies that acknowledge our need to constantly update our knowledge and learn new skills, we can ensure that workers will have access to training throughout their working lives. Improving access to formal education for adults and developing on-the-job training opportunities that are flexible and allow workers to combine work and training, we can equip our workforce with the aptitudes that industries need and reap the benefits through high levels of labour market participation in our economies.
Periods of unemployment are often inevitable but should be harnessed and viewed as a chance to upskill or retrain workers and equip them for jobs in an ever-shifting labour market. People working part-time or taking career breaks can also seize the opportunity to acquire a new expertise or update and refresh their core skills.
An important prerequisite to allow access to all those learning opportunities will be to encourage people to take responsibility for their own skills development. To make this happen governments should set up individual training portfolios with opportunities and entitlements for everyone – regardless of their work contracts or relationships. In this way, workers will have easy access to training across a variety of skills sets and be able to ensure that their knowledge is up-to-date and that they have the skills they need in a fast-changing labour market.
At the World Employment Confederation, we believe that skilling is a key element in building open, inclusive and sustainable labour markets. However, it’s only one piece of the social innovation puzzle. In order to guide policymakers in shaping forward-looking labour markets that meet the new workplace realities, we have four further key policy recommendations. See more here.
Managing Director, World Employment Confederation