back to the future of work

Back to the future of work

By Glenda Quintini.


On 15 January, the Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs hosted a meeting of employment and labour ministers of OECD countries and beyond. The meeting was preceded by a Forum on the Future of Work where academics, policy makers, business leaders and union heads engaged in a lively debate on what mega trends such as digitisation, changes in work organisation and globalisation mean for tomorrow’s world of work. There is good and bad in the possible scenario discussed:

  • Will robots replace workers?
  • Will globalisation continue to shift routine tasks where labour costs are lower and regulations less strict?
  • Will changes in work organisation allow more women to enter and thrive in the world of work?

The key issue on the table was how to ensure that workers benefit from the transformation of jobs and work places. There was consensus among all that initial training as well as upskilling and re-training later in life play a crucial role in achieving this objective.

Participants to the Forum all agreed that solving the skills challenges brought by the three mega trends will require a mid-term vision of current and future skills needs and a plan of how those are going to be supplied. Addressing these needs, everybody agreed, will require a joint approach involving all actors (employers, workers, government, training providers); it will also need action on several fronts including initial education and lifelong learning, with an emphasis on technical and soft skills – often not valued in existing education systems centred on general/academic learning.

Of the three trends, digitisation received the most attention. The importance of information and communications technology (ICT) skills for workers and education providers was stressed in several instances and in a rather positive way. Robots, and digitisation more generally, will inevitably change the tasks carried out by workers but workers should be seen as working WITH robots rather than being replaced by them. ICT, everybody agreed, also provides exceptional learning opportunities, making it possible to learn on demand, based on specific needs and in an interactive way. For this reason, it should be embraced by education and training providers.

Although the ministerial meeting that took place the next day was a separate, more formal, event, the importance of skills, particularly transferable ones, continued to take centre stage. Ministers themselves agreed that workers need to possess competences that are transferable to new sectors and jobs in the face of rapid changes in skills requirements. Acting on new entrants to the labour market will not be enough; the pace of change calls for the skills of those already in the labour market to be kept constantly up to date.

All the themes dear to the heart of this blog were mentioned at a special session dedicated to skills. Ministers insisted on the importance of investing in comprehensive assessments of existing and future skill needs and using the information to create new courses, update curricula and set the number of places available in apprenticeship training and life-long learning programmes.

The importance of vocational education and training (VET) and work-based learning more generally could not have been stressed more. Countries continue to look at apprenticeships as an excellence pathway while they struggle to improve the image of more class-based VET courses. Higher course quality and expansion beyond traditional trades are essential to raise the profile of technical learning but skill needs information can also come useful to guide students’ choices towards professions that are in high demand.

Life-long learning did not go unmentioned. In light of the three mega trends discussed at the Forum, governments are prioritising the upskilling and re-training of workers, particularly those that need it most – for instance, workers whose skills are at highest risk of being automated or offshored. These groups often lose out as training opportunities concentrate on the most skilled. Not only did countries call for better opportunities available for these under-represented groups but also for better incentives for under-represented individuals to take up these opportunities.

Finally, a theme emerging in all discussions at the meeting was that of stakeholders’ involvement: government, unions, employers, workers and training providers. Social partners have a particularly important role to play in this process as much of this training should ideally be provided on the job or have a work-based component.

In addition to being an extremely interesting and enjoyable event, the Ministerial meeting was also an opportunity for OECD to get a mandate to update its Jobs Strategy to fully reflect the lessons learned from the global economic crisis and the policies that have been implemented to address the consequences of the crisis, as well as to tackle the current policy challenges we are all facing, including the trend increase in income inequality; the impact of ongoing technological changes on labour demand, work organisation, social security and employment protection; rapid demographic change; and globalisation. Skills will feature prominently in the new document that will be prepared over the next two years: as an essential tool to improve the adaptability of the workforce and a pathway to ensure that ongoing changes turn from challenges to opportunities for individuals and societies.

We will be busy. Watch this spot.