With workers locked-in to a future of continuing education, who will pay the bill?

With workers locked-in to a future of continuing education, who will pay the bill?

Some experts at the World Economic Forum (WEF) believe that people with skills in science, technology, art and mathematics will be in luck in the future. In this September 2022 photograph, researchers at the Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, explore street mobility solutions.

(EC - Audiovisual Service/José-Joaquín Blasco Muñoz)

The dizzying speed of advancements in technology and robotics and their applications in the labour market will lead to the disappearance of jobs over the next decade. Eighty per cent of the jobs that will replace them do not yet exist.

Experts and international organisations warn that only those who are able to quickly adapt to change through lifelong learning will survive. Will all of us have to learn computer engineering to remain useful? Which occupations will disappear and which will increasingly be in demand? Can education systems be adapted to a world in which university degrees become obsolete in just a decade? Most importantly, who will pay for lifelong learning?

The covid-19 pandemic accelerated a dynamic that has been emerging over the last two decades. The ‘fourth industrial revolution’, or the ways that humans interact with the machines they’ve created, is well underway: we hold virtual meetings; algorithms predict trends and decipher our desires; and customer service workers have been replaced by chatbots.

Ninety per cent of today’s jobs in almost all sectors require some degree of digital competence, but only 56 per cent of adults in 2019 had this essential skillset. While we won’t all have to become computer engineers, most of us will have to achieve a minimum level of digital competence to survive in the labour market. This means that a significant amount of skill and knowledge will have to be updated and distributed.

By the start of the new millennium jobs were no longer ‘for life’; the same is now true of careers. In her book Long Life Learning, Michelle R. Weise predicts that, due to increased life expectancy, people in the coming decades will have an average of 12 different jobs over a single lifetime, which could mean careers of up to 100 years.

Labour market predictions indicate that in the near future one in seven workers worldwide will lose their current job. But 15 years ago, few foresaw that being a YouTuber would become a million-dollar occupation for some.

In the face of this unprecedented disruption, terms like upskilling, which consists of teaching workers new skills, and reskilling, professional retraining to help employees adapt to a new position, have become increasingly common.

Jobs that are currently in demand but which experts say will disappear are those that involve redundant or routine tasks that can be done by a machine: inventory management, clerical, accounting, auditing, data entry, statistics, finance, insurance, customer service, logistics and medical diagnostics, among others.

Truck drivers, a profession which is currently in high demand due to unattractive salaries and working conditions, could see their jobs automated away by 2030. Companies such as Google, Uber and Tesla have been investing in vehicular automation for years. This shift to driverless technology would result in three million unemployed people in the United States alone.

So what skills and qualifications are most in demand? Some experts at the World Economic Forum (WEF) believe that people with skills in science, technology, art and mathematics will be in luck in the future. According to their latest report, health professionals, both physical and mental, and educational professionals will continue to be in high demand through 2030, the date to which most of the reports published thus far are oriented. Meanwhile experts are still analysing the impact of the pandemic on employment.

Outside of healthcare and education, the most sought-after professionals will be those who know how to collaborate with machines: specialists in data science (artificial intelligence and big data), engineering and production, sales and marketing, IT, technology and telecommunications, as well as experts in ecological transition, environmental law and circular economy.

Soft skills, including the ability to solve complex problems, innovation, creativity, critical thinking, teamwork, results orientation, ethics, communication and the ability to adapt to changes in the environment and tolerate frustration, will also be increasingly valued.

Despite the recommendations issued by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in recent years, few local solutions have been implemented and global vision is lacking. The consequences of inaction are dire. The WEF’s 2022 report provides chilling figures on the exacerbation of unemployment and inequality: the global population living in poverty increased by 131 million in 2020, while another 54 million dropped out of the global middle class. What’s more, current training plans are not adapted to the reality in which we are currently living: many graduates are unemployed or underemployed, while many companies are unable to find the professional profiles they need.

Workers’ right to lifelong learning

The ILO and the European Union (EU) have been analysing and anticipating the challenges of sustainability and digital transformation for years. Both believe that workers have a right to ‘lifelong learning’, or continuing education, and that this right is fundamental to successfully facing technological and ecological transition and creating a safety net in times of great uncertainty.

The ILO and the EU recommend combined financing models for lifelong learning, which allow for the possibility of most workers being self-employed in the future. These workers, along with lower-skilled and less well-resourced employees, and those working in the informal sector, will be the most vulnerable in this rapidly approaching future.

In its 2019 report, the ILO predicted that 56 per cent of jobs are at risk of
being automated away over the next 20 years. The solution it proposes is recognising lifelong learning as a universal entitlement and establishing an effective system involving organisations such as the WTO and the Bretton Woods institutions. But this is only a declaration of intent.

As companies are the main beneficiaries of technological developments, they should be the main contributors to continuing education. In the United States, which unlike the EU does not have a robust system of accessible and affordable education, a few exemplary companies such as Baxter and Anthem provide grants of up to US$5,000 a year for their employees to improve and develop their training; BP funds up to 90 per cent, while Starbucks and Disney pay for their employees’ university education. But Disney, as we know, is a dream factory: these are exceptions in a market dominated by the ethos of every man for himself.

With this in mind, the ILO suggests that governments explore viable options for incentivising private companies to create ‘employment insurance’ or ‘social funds’ that would allow workers to take paid time off for their training.

On his Twitter feed, Tim O’Reilly, Silicon Valley guru and author of the 2017 book WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us, sounds increasingly like an activist for social rights, calling for more powerful unions, free education and job protection. O’Reilly knows that leaving matters to neoliberal dynamics will not solve the problem.

As for the EU, its €800 billion ‘Next Generation’ funds were launched in the wake of the covid pandemic. These funds are aimed at helping countries and companies improve in terms of ecology, reindustrialisation and digitalisation as they recover from the pandemic. The EU has been using two tools to address the challenge of transition and digitisation through 2030: Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs) and micro-credentials.

ILAs ensure that all individuals have access to training opportunities with paid leave throughout their lives, including the unemployed and self-employed. Micro-credentials certify learning outcomes of accelerated educational experiences, such as short courses. The aim of the European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan is to ensure that 60 per cent of all adults participate in training every year by 2030. By 2016, that figure was only 37 per cent.

The EU’s goal is for at least 78 per cent of the population aged 20 to 64 to be in employment by 2030 and for Europe’s population at risk of poverty and social exclusion to be reduced by at least 15 million. It remains to be seen whether these solutions will be sufficient.

Meanwhile, millions of workers continue to work in the informal sector worldwide. For these workers, the ILO recommends establishing a national or sectoral training. These are the workers who will require the most creative strategies in order to avoid tragic outcomes.

This article has been translated from Spanish.