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European Commission researchers: digital skills as a prerequisite to success in the labour market

New technologies will not replace workers, but technology will fundamentally modify (and has already modified) job content and the nature of work. Consequently, future workers will inevitably need to develop digital skills to remain economically active and productive. Sergio Torrejón Pérez and Ignacio González Vázquez, researchers at the Joint Research Center (JRC), which provides research and advice to the European Commission and thus helps to form European Union policy, share their insights on the changing nature of work and skills in the post-pandemic era.agenda foto 102020

The COVID19 pandemic has demonstrated that digital technologies play a critical and vital role in the daily lives of people. From the perspective of preparation to digitalization – what have this pandemic showed us?

Digital technologies facilitate remote work, and this practice has been crucial to maintain economic activity and support productivity during the current crisis. Thanks to digital technologies an important part of the economy remained active even during the strictest period of confinement. But there are important gaps and differences across EU Member States regarding digitalisation in general, and telework in particular.

According to a recent JRC report, telework was more common before the crisis in countries such as Sweden, the Netherlands or Luxembourg, while only a marginal share of total employment was usually or sometimes performed remotely in other countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, Cyprus or Lithuania. This research also suggests that differences in the prevalence of telework were not only due to the sectoral composition of the economy, because the prevalence was higher even in the same sectors. This observation indicates that the differences could be also attributable to differences regarding organisational culture.

One important lesson we can extract is that the higher the prevalence of telework before the crisis the better, because jobs that are susceptible to be performed on remote are more resilient to the crisis. In the same sense, the countries that are better equipped with digital technologies and skills are in a better position for the large-scale transition to telework triggered by the pandemic. Consequently, in countries with relatively higher shares of teleworkable jobs we can expect a relatively lower economic and employment impact of the current crisis. By contrast, if the share of sectors that require the physical manipulation of objects and interaction with clients (not-teleworkable sectors, such as manufacturing, restaurants, leisure and culture, retail trade or tourism) is relatively high, the economic and employment impact of the current crisis can be more severe, as another JRC report has demonstrated.

If we pay attention to differences within countries, we see that not all workers are able to telework. This practice is more common in high-qualified occupations (such as telecommunications, professional, scientific, and technical occupations, education, etc.), and its prevalence tends to be higher as the income also increases. This is one of the reasons that explain why the impact of the current crisis is being clearly asymmetric. In consequence, it is necessary to continue promoting digital skills in Europe, especially among those that still lack them.

From video conference calls with family, watching as children learn via online education to streaming online workouts, lots of things have changed — are these habits (and possibly newly acquired skills) sustainable and will it remain in post-pandemic world?

These practices are probably here to stay. The extraordinary circumstances we are living have forced us to behave in a different way, making a more intense use of digital technologies due to the restrictions imposed on human interaction and movements. We cannot expect these habits to remain unchanged once we overcome the pandemic: the human being is social by definition and tends to prefer human contact. But we are getting familiar with a series of devices, tools, tasks, and practices that have the potential to re-configure both our private and professional life.

Telework is a paradigmatic example, so let us discuss it once again to illustrate this point. The current crisis is just accelerating changes that have been around for years. Telework increased slowly in the 10 years before the Covid-19 outbreak (mostly as an occasional work pattern), and it is expected to continue doing so at a higher pace even once we overcome the pandemic. However, in the past many employers were reluctant to this practice (especially in those countries in which presenteeism was prominent) because it entails a potential loss of control over the production process. But these extraordinary circumstances are demonstrating that, in many cases, workers can continue with their activity on remote, and this situation can produce multiple benefits both for them (they can organise their time in a more flexible way and thus get a better work-life balance) and the firm/ institution (an increase in labour productivity, cost savings, etc.). Of course telework also entails important challenges, both for workers and for companies: for example, working conditions could deteriorate rather than improve for workers, and without the right infrastructure productivity can be diminished for companies, but with the appropriate policies in place many of these could potentially be tackled to ensure that the benefits are fully taken advantage of.

The important lesson we are learning as a society is that organisational culture can and does change sometimes quickly, so we can expect telework and other practices based on the use of digital technologies (communications among relatives, the promotion of online courses as a form to promote lifelong learning, e-learning, etc.) to become more and more common in the mid and the long term. The changes produced by the crisis could then be changes of a quantitative (changes that we knew but are being accelerated) instead of a qualitative nature.

Of course, changes towards a more digitalised work and life environment require changes in training and education. And here we do not only have to talk about formal education and cognitive skills, but we have to promote lifelong learning and other strategies (active policies) capable of ensuring that everybody (also the people that lack resources and opportunities) can access to a type of training (focused on digital and non-cognitive skills) that are going to be essential for the post-covid era.

In the light of changing tasks, what skills we can expect to be in demand in post-pandemic world? How can technological innovation create new job opportunities? Where those opportunities can be mainly seen? What type of new forms of work are emerging?

As indicated, digital skills are becoming more and more important. This trend was observable before the crisis, but the current economic shock is accelerating this transformation. Digital skills are acquiring importance not only because high-qualified occupations and jobs related with the use of ICT (the ones that are more resilient) are gaining importance and require an intensive use of them, but also because all jobs can be expected to become more technology-based. This does not mean that new technologies are always going to replace workers, but that technology modifies, often substantially, job content and the nature of work, so that in more cases workers are going to coexist with new machines and tools. For this reason, we reckon that digital skills are going to end up functioning as a prerequisite or essential condition to success in the labour market.

Socio-emotional skills are also becoming more and more relevant. These skills have a transversal character: we are talking about the ability to teamwork, to plan and anticipate problems, to communicate, but also about the flexibility of workers and their predisposition to continue learning. When access to formal education (where cognitive skills are transmitted) has been democratised, these other skills make the difference. In fact, we do know that jobs that are expected to grow the most and are better paid require an intensive use of these skills. Its importance is even higher in a context (with an economic crisis and a rapid technological change) in which the ability to adapt to new circumstances and to the performance of new tasks (to skill and reskill) is more and more important.  

The importance of both digital and socio-emotional skills is highlighted in the Skills Agenda adopted recently by the European Commission. The Commission has developed a number of tools aimed to promote and enhance them, including the DigComp framework to improve citizen's digital competence; the LifeComp framework for personal, social, and learning to learn competence and also the EntreComp framework to promote entrepreneurial competences.

On the other hand, new technologies create opportunities and challenges. The opportunities are related with the positive impact they may have on labour productivity and with their capacity to create new tasks and jobs. A paradigmatic example is platform work: a new form of work that is creating millions of jobs. JRC research shows that in Europe in 2017, 11% (11.8% in Lithuania) of the working-age population across the 16 EU Member States surveyed provided services via online platforms at least once, most of them doing so on marginal or sporadic basis or as a secondary job. Only 1.4% (1.2% in Lithuania) of the working-age population operated on platforms as their main job. This form of work is expected to continue growing, so it is also important to consider that there are some risks associated.

Platform work allow direct contact and economic interactions between the providers of services (the workers) and the clients via online platforms (apps in the smartphone, a computer, etc.), so there is no need to formalise employment relationships between the employers and the employees. That is why many times this form of work is associated to self-employment. In many other cases, the providers of services operate within a firm. But even in the cases in which there is a formal relationship between the worker and an employer, this relationship tends to be more fragmented (they work on demand and are paid for weeks, hours or objectives) and the employer tends to have more control over the production process (they can control the location of the employee, the progress they make on real time, etc.). This new reality has distributional consequences. Not only because in many cases these jobs have low-wages, but also because due to the instability and the insecurity associated to it, it is more difficult for them to access to social protection benefits, a phenomenon that has an impact on poverty and inequality specially in a context of crisis.

Lithuania is also in a rush to digital, but there are many lessons to be learnt. To what lessons should we pay more attention? How can we close the skills mismatch? What implications should be taken in terms of skills provision?

The promotion and the provision of digital skills is an area where both firms (through courses and lifelong learning) and governments (via public investments and active policies of the labour market) have a role to play.

The implication of all actors is essential to ensure that a lifelong learning strategy has a generalised positive impact in the labour market. Promoting lifelong learning in their workplaces can create returns to companies (by boosting the labour productivity of their workers), but also because the society as a whole would see benefits in form of a better employability of the workforce, which in turn promotes better labour market transitions and boosts employment.

At the same time, ensuring broad accessibility to this type of training (also women, senior workers and low-wage workers, the ones that are less familiarized with digital technologies) is also important. Otherwise, existing inequalities might be reproduced and magnified in the labour market. Active labour market policies can play a role in this regard.

It is also important to adapt public education plans to new social and economic realities, incorporating the use of new devices and technologies in the day by day as a way to ensure that everyone can learn how to cope and success in a digital environment. In relation to this, the SELFIE project could be mentioned as an example of good practice to help schools embed digital technologies into teaching, learning and assessment. This tool anonymously gathers the views of students, teachers, and school leaders on how technology is used in their school, and based on these inputs the tool generates a report of a school’s strengths and weaknesses in their use of technology. Consequently, the tool can be helpful to help schools assess where they stand with learning in the digital age and promote better practices.