“Work evolution has become a revolution,” said ETF labour market expert Iwona Ganko, setting the virtual stage for the Adapting to Changing Skills Demands session. “It’s about being digitally savvy, adaptable and resilient against a backdrop of technological and climate change, accelerated by the pandemic.”

Machine learning, big data analysis and other IT developments are changing industrial processes completely, making it “the greatest change since the steam engine”, Riccardo Savigliano, industrial development expert from UNIDO (the United Nations Industrial Development Organization), told the session.

To match demographic growth rates and keep employment rates stable, it is necessary to create 600 million new jobs, especially in regions such as Africa and Asia, said Savigliano. Industry plays a key role in this, but “industry is changing dramatically at every level  — inputs, processes, and outputs — and that’s why we must boost resilience”.

Simultaneously, green and digital revolutions are impacting on industry.

“Products are becoming services and customers need to be reassured that what they consume follows green, sustainable processes”.

Jovana Karanovic, of the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University, pointed out that while platform-work, gig-work and self-employment all present skilling challenges, they have been welcomed among especially younger workers as allowing for “more dynamic careers” than previously.

Platform work, because of the low barriers to entry and globality, opens new possibilities for the disabled, those between formal jobs, and those with rare skills.

However, with workers now having to take greater responsibility for themselves, it is important that they do not bear the burden of financing the repeated cycles of reskilling required. Governments and industry have to establish “eco-systems of support”, said Karanovic.

Several audience participants emphasised the difficulty of identifying the skills needed. Konstantinos Pouliakas, skills and labour markets expert at the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP), pointed out that a CEDEFOP analysis of 100 million online job vacancies had identified no fewer than 3,000 separate skills.

Pouliakas said that there has been a dramatic shift towards digital skills – both basic digital skills, enabling people to engage digitally for work, but also advanced technical skills to understand business IT systems, for instance, as well as data analysis skills necessary for modern remote organisations to survive during the pandemic.

Looking at medium-term insulation against redundancy, Pouliakas said skills associated with information processing are “very clearly” in danger from artificial intelligence, while skills such as leadership and creativity are more future-proof or resilient.

“In the future, there will be high demand for skills that are related to social, empathy and health care. We forget the human and social side.”

Skilling is also an organisational challenge. Savigliano said that while big industries understand the need to change perceptions of skills needs, smaller industries are still getting to grips with it, while in SMEs, change had yet to take place at a managerial level in understanding the opportunities and risks attached to skilling, upskilling and reskilling.

“It has to be taken for granted that advanced IT skills will be involved. That is a matter of survival. However, in the developing countries we work in, that is not always fully realised,” said Savigliano. Pouliakas, too, stressed that "the skills relating to the ability of a business to transform itself has become important, along with a need for different types of managers who can organise in remote circumstances”.

On the possible downside, there is the changing nature of work organisation. “I am very concerned that practices that are prevalent in the gig and platform economy — management by algorithm — are also becoming more prevalent in traditional workforces, which would be a disincentive to skills development,” said Pouliakas.

It was important, responded Ganko, that it was not  “algorithms managing us, but us managing algorithms.” 

Victoria Kravets, a 16-year-old from Ukraine, drew on a large youth consultative process conducted jointly by UNICEF and the ETF during which young people described the on-the-ground difficulties they encounter in preparing for a career in a rapidly transforming economy. It brought what Iwona Ganko described as a “reality check” to the discussion.

The statistics are sobering. More than 56% of the young people surveyed had little or no career input from the school system. Instead, well over two-thirds had as primary career choice sources the internet and social media (42%), parents and family (27%) and friends (8%). Another problem articulated was a perceived lack of connection between universities and businesses.

Nevertheless, the next generation has their heads firmly wrapped around the need for changing skills. While critical thinking, problem-solving abilities, and foreign language skills were accorded importance, there was emphasis also on the likely need for emotional intelligence, social skills, adaptability, and a commitment to lifelong learning.

Key take-aways:

— Industrial processes are experiencing the biggest changes since the harnessing of steam, demanding a new skills resilience.

— Industrial outputs themselves are being transformed, as products become services and customers become “green conscious”.

— Gig and platform work have shifted the burden of skilling to the individual, so it is critical to develop state and industrial “support eco-systems” to develop new tax and funding models.

— Gig and platform work, because of globality and low entry barriers, have opened work possibilities to some previously struggling groups: the disabled; those between formal jobs; and those with uncommon skills.

— “Future proof” skills are likely to include those related to leadership, creativity, social empathy and health care.

— As a matter of survival, SME managers, especially in developing countries, need to change managerial perceptions about skills required and the relative opportunities and risks.

To see the full event: