The future of skills and work in the digital age


By ETF’s roving reporter Nick Holdsworth

Look at or imagine your office desk and observe what you see there. Now shut your eyes and remember how it looked 10, 20 or 30 years ago…

Once desks were places for pens, jotting pads, typewriters, paper clips, erasers and coffee cups sat on old brown stains. Today they are dominated by electronic devices, papers are becoming a thing of the past, and the office desk itself may be the seat of a train or flight from one European capital to another.

This is exactly the ‘work station’ from which this blog is being written…

The digital revolution has changed the way we work, where we work and how we work. The pace at which the world of work is changing is a growing challenge for policymakers.

Digital companies are ‘capital, not labour intensive,’ says Professor Ivana Pais, expert on the Labour and Welfare State Committee of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, Italy.

The need for suitable policy responses to prepare people in the European Union (EU) and its partner countries for the emerging labour market of the digital economy is urgent, she says.

‘As many as 20-30% of the population of the US and EU now work independently – around 162 million people,’ Prof. Pais told the Torino Process regional-level policy forum in Tbilisi, Georgia last November.

Around 15% of these independent workers use online platforms to find work, in fields ranging from consultancy and web-design to the new jobs of the ‘gig’ economy – delivery or online taxi service drivers.

Preparing policy responses in unchartered areas can be complicated: the London Employment Tribunal ruling classifying Uber drivers in the UK as employees, has wide ranging tax and labour law ramifications, and not surprisingly, met resistance from Uber – a low labour, high capital intensive business.

The changes will affect everyone, Prof. Pais says: ‘All industries – service, agriculture, engineering and others – are affected by the move from ‘messy old desk’ to new ‘computer and a phone desk.’

Ensuring training systems are flexible, policies evidence-based, and meet fast-changing labour market demands by working closely with business, social partners and stakeholders, will fall to policymakers, VET experts and practitioners.

Others are more cultural – technology allows us to work anywhere at any time. The boundaries between work, home and leisure are blurring.

‘We bring work home but rarely do home tasks at the office or during working hours,’ Prof. Pais says.

Producers and consumers are merging with people increasingly involved in the production model – customising shoes they have ordered online or designing ‘self-print’ books.

The new world of hybrid work means more ‘proams’ – professional amateurs, uncertified but highly skilled people – are emerging.

VET policy makers and professionals need to be ready to respond.

By ETF’s roving reporter Nick Holdsworth

Digital skills are at the core of the European Commission’s new Skills Agenda for Europe. Join Marianne Thyssen, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility, when she discusses this hot topic and more at the Torino Process international conference, June 7-8.


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