Skilling has become the new buzzword and is often heralded as the golden bullet in navigating our changing world of work. However, while there are no shortage of conferences and articles proclaiming skilling as the key to unlocking the future of work, I can’t help wondering if we are missing something and have put the cart before the horse.
Before being too swift to jump on the ‘skilling will save us all’ bandwagon, let us consider the facts. The social security systems that we have created in the developed world over the past 70+ years are no longer sustainable. The idea of people spending 40 years working 40 hours per week is a thing of the past. Today’s careers will involve a greater number of transitions and with them a fast-changing set of skills needs.
As a result people have a different set of demands of a social security system and this global trend is set to accelerate. The average dependency ratio in the OECD countries is currently 1 in 4, meaning there are some 28 people aged 65 or over for every 100 people of working age (20-64 years). By 2075 this is set to be 1 in 2, or more than 58% as our aging population means there will be fewer people working to support the rest of society.
With less people contributing to the social security system via taxes and a greater number of people needing to draw from it, we will need a fundamental rethink of how the system is both funded and managed.
The fact is that labour markets and social security systems are about to be hit by a tsunami. At the moment too many policymakers are standing on the beach wondering where the water has gone instead of taking action to mitigate the impact of the tidal wave that is approaching. Instead of placing focus on skilling people and pushing for certification systems and validation, governments around the world need to take a step back by overhauling their social security systems.
Clearly there is no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving this as social security safety nets differ greatly around the world. However, what we will all need is measures that provide access to education in all life phases and incentive people to go back to the classroom and get the skills they need to play a useful role in the labour market. Workers need to be able to do this confident in the knowledge that their rights and protections will remain in place and employers need encouragement to provide ongoing training. Creating portable training rights and developing transferrable skills will serve the needs of both workers and employers in an uncertain future of work. Soft skills in particular can be purposed in a host of working situations but many people will still find themselves retraining two or three times in their working lives as skills today often only last a half-life rather than a full career.
The challenge remains of course that neither governments nor businesses have a crystal ball to know exactly what skills will be needed in the future and what to prepare for. The best way to anticipate this is by developing a learning infrastructure that keeps governments close to market developments and needs. This way they will be able to recognise changing skills needs and adapt education and training systems in order to create a framework for life-long learning that meets the needs of everyone – governments, workers and business.
Arguably, a further reason that skilling has received so much attention is that it’s a bit of a no-brainer for policymakers. Nobody is going to disagree with training workers to make them better equipped for the labour market. The challenge of course lies with who is going to pay for it. Should it be governments, employers or the workers themselves? For me the answer is simple: education is the best income security. This means that every worker, business and government has an inherent self-interest in picking up a piece of the tab. Governments – by ensuring access to relevant training is not limited to people in a particular age, job, sector or work relation; businesses – by investing in people and relations with educators; and workers – by accepting that their benefits are allocated towards training rather than temporary income protection.
In this way skills and social security reform are addressed in tandem. By reforming social security systems to create a level playing field for workers in which their rights and protections are upheld regardless of their employment contract or skilling needs, governments’ path the way for more diverse forms of work. I believe that then, in these more active labour markets, the updating of skills will become part of a much more sustainable policy approach.
Jochem de Boer
Global Public Affairs Manager, World Employment Confederation