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The future of work: a world of new and changing skills

December 21, 2016

Digital native in natural surroundings

Glenda Quintini and Alastair Wood, OECD Directorate for Education, Employment and Social Affairs

What do you want to be when you grow up? As young girls and boys learn about space and the cosmos they may dream about being an astronaut. Building a beautiful Lego construction might lead them to declare their desire to be an architect. These days however, rather than catching a young boy or girl playing with Lego or a toy space rocket, they might be learning how to write computer code, aspiring to change the world through technology. Even 3-year-old children scroll through photos on an iPad with an ease and dexterity that stun many adults. That our children are so comfortable using new technologies is encouraging given where our societies are heading. The Internet of Things, Big Data, artificial intelligence (AI) and other new technologies are expected to create new and different jobs, substantially change many existing jobs, and make others obsolete. Adapting to and benefiting from these profound changes requires new skills, now and in the future.

But how well are countries prepared for the digital economy? OECD evidence paints a disturbing picture. Today, 95% of workers in large businesses and 85% in medium-sized businesses have access to and use the Internet as part of their jobs (OECD, 2013).  Yet over half of the adult population (56%) have no ICT skills or can only fulfil the simplest set of tasks in a technology-rich environment. Even among young adults, those between 25 and 34, only 42% can complete tasks involving multiple steps and requiring the use of specific technology applications, such as downloading music files or looking for a job online (Level 2 or 3); among people aged 55-65, only 10% can do this. And not only the workplace is changing; interactions between citizens and governments, between businesses and clients, and within personal networks also rely more and more on digital, mobile or social-media tools (OECD, 2009, 2011). Obviously, workers who can code and develop applications are in high demand; but digitalisation also means that everyone needs to be quite proficient using ICT, even those in low-skilled jobs: today, a factory worker often has to interact with an entirely automated chain of production and a waiter might be taking orders on an iPad.

Being good at ICT pays off. Workers with strong ICT skills are paid almost 30% more, on average, than those who cannot do much more than type or use a mouse (i.e. with skills at or below Level 1). These pay gaps exceed 50% in England, Singapore and the United States. Like in other sectors, there are also gender gaps in ICT: ICT specialists account for 5.5% of all male workers but only for 1.4% of female workers (OECD, 2016a). And this gap is likely to persist in the future: more than twice as many boys currently expect to work in science and engineering jobs when compared to girls, as stated in the latest OECD PISA survey, despite the fact that ICT jobs are in high demand, well-paid and offer promising careers.

But while tech skills are crucial, more is needed to succeed in the new world of work. In addition to ICT skills, workers also need entrepreneurial and organisational knowhow and the right social skills to work collaboratively. Workers also need the flexibility to adapt as technologies evolve (Spitz-Oener, 2006; Bessen, 2015). As Einstein put it “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” Our children will likely have a whole range of different jobs and even a range of careers over their lifetime – an exciting prospect but also a challenging one.

New OECD work on Skills for a Digital World calls on governments to ensure that digitalisation brings good quality jobs and that both employers and workers have the means to benefit from new opportunities that open up. Skills policies should strengthen initial learning; anticipate and respond better to changing skill needs; increase the use of workers’ competences; and improve incentives for further learning along with greater recognition of MOOCs (massive open online courses) and OERs (open educational resources). Our challenge today is that we have to educate people for jobs that don’t exist yet and the only way to do this is to be flexible and adapt education and training continuously. Then there is no reason to be worried if kids have no idea what they want to be later in life. Being open-minded and making sure that one remains open to learning and using new skills is likely the best attitude to adopt.

Useful links

Arntz, M., T. Gregory and U. Zierahn  (2016), “The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries: A Comparative Analysis“, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 189, OECD Publishing, Paris

Autor, D. (2015), “Why Are there still so many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 29, No. 3, pp. 7-30.

OECD (2016), PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD (2016a), “Skills for a Digital World: 2016 Ministerial Meeting on the Digital Economy Background Report”, OECD Digital Economy Papers, No. 250, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD (2015b), Adults, Computers and Problem Solving: What’s the Problem? OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD (2013), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Spitz-Oener, A. (2006), “Technical Change, Job Tasks, and Rising Educational Demands: Looking Outside the Wage Structure”, Journal of Labor Economics, Vol. 24, No. 2, pp. 235‑270.

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