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Day 5: 108th International Labour Conference - Thematic Forum

Life-long learning for a brighter future of work

A forum held as part of the International Labour Organization’s annual conference, which this year marks the ILO’s Centenary, explored the link between jobs, skills and the policy reforms needed to support the labour market of the future.

News | 14 June 2019
Photo album and video recording of the forum
GENEVA (ILO News) – Participants at a forum held at the Centenary International Labour Conference (ILC) discussed transformations sweeping through the world of work, including technology, climate change and demographic shifts.

Participants, representing workers, employers, governments, the private sector and international organizations, looked at how these transformations provide new opportunities for creating employment and improving incomes. They also looked at how the changes disrupt labour markets, affect global production networks and change the tasks and skills requirements of existing and future jobs.

Moussa Oumarou, Deputy Director-General for Field Operations and Partnerships stressed the need to urgently tackle mounting challenges in the world of work. “Advances in technology – artificial intelligence, automation and robotics – are all going to create new jobs, but some people will have to adapt, and it's up to us to work collectively to ensure that the social safety net enables them to manage this transition successfully. Skills are part of the picture. Today's skills will not match the jobs of tomorrow, and recently acquired know-how risks being quickly outdated.”

Participants agreed that such challenges make it necessary to continually reskill and upskill over the life course. Jobs will be needed for the many young workers in developing economies.

Jose Angel Gurría Trevino, Secretary General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said the forces of digitalization, globalization and demographic change provide great potential to improve lives, and that four out of 10 jobs created in OECD countries now are in digital-intensive sectors. “But at the same time, 14 per cent of the workforce today is highly exposed to being displaced by technology, an additional 32 per cent being disrupted by technology. So about half the workforce altogether is impacted by technology; about half the workforce is not prepared for operating in highly technological work environments.” He added: “those who need training most are the ones who have the least access to it.”

At the same time, demographic trends are leading to massive migratory pressures and large-scale movements of migrants and refugees.

Filippo Grandi, High Commissioner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said “there are over 70 million people who have been displaced by war, by violence, sometimes combined with poverty or climate change. By virtue of being displaced in this manner, they are also fundamentally and often excluded from the transformations we are discussing and that benefit others in the world of work.” He added: “Eighty five per cent of refugees who are displaced – stateless people – are in poor and middle income countries. Most of their access to work is informal. Their exclusion is multiple and has a lot of impact on their ability to work. They have no documentation, and often no freedom of movement. They are excluded from financial services and the digital gap is particularly big, and education is a remote opportunity.”

Mario Cimoli, Deputy Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), said “there is an enormous gap between middle income and developing economies and the more developed ones, because it is clear that, for example, in countries like Germany, digitalization is creating jobs, but in Latin America and other countries digitalization is not creating jobs and has a negative impact on informality and on small and medium firms. In Latin America, 80 per cent of employment is in small and medium firms.” He added that developing economies need to develop industrial and technological policies to create new jobs and incorporate digitalization into the structure of the economy.

Thorben Albrecht, Federal Manager of the Social Democratic Party of Germany and Commissioner of the ILO’s Global Commission on the Future of Work, said “the skills requirements for workers are changing very quickly and will be changing over the coming years and our challenge is to make sure that no-one is left behind. How do we do that?” He said: “We have to move from active policies to pro-active policies that engage with people, that train them while they are still in their job but are in danger of losing it due to technological change.” Albrecht also suggested instituting a “universal opportunities account” for re-training throughout their working life, in place of universal basic income. He said this would also give people more equal opportunities when starting out in their working lives.

Ms Dimple Agarwal, global leader of Organization Transformation and Talent for Deloitte’s Human Capital practice, said “certain tasks within jobs are changing. You can fill the time of people who used to do those full jobs with new skills and abilities to complement what they were doing previously.” Agarwal said: “All our research and all our work clients indicates that actually more jobs are being created, and what is happening is that productivity will increase, but what we need to learn is to get humans to work with machines in a much better way.” She said workers needed to double down on the uniquely human skills, such as complex problem solving or cognitive or social skills, and that life-long learning, which mostly takes place on the job, needed to become more innovative and responsive.

Mary Liew Kiah Eng, President of Singapore’s National Trade Unions Congress and General Secretary of the Singapore Maritime Officer's Union, said that changes taking place in the world of work were happening at unprecedented speed. She said: “Business has to innovate. Workers also have to upskill and reskill as well. We are not going through the journey by ourselves. The workers cannot do it on their own, nor can the employers or the governments on their own. We need collaboration, and that is where tripartism comes in. Tripartite partners must go through the journey of transformation together, to give assurance to our workers, so that workers can have better wages, benefits and work prospects.”

The forum then moved to discussion of a country-specific case study, and looked at lifelong learning in Switzerland.

Boris Zürcher, Head of the Labour Directorate in the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, said: "The social partners play a key role, but also the professional associations that listen to the economy, are attentive to the needs of the labour market, but are also attentive to the workers, and who are setting up a training program to keep up to date with skills. This culture of dialogue is essential."

Blaise Matthey, Director-General of the Fédération des Entreprises Romandes, Luca Cirigliano, Secrétaire Central, Union Syndicale Suisse, SGB-USS, said "there is a deep conviction in Switzerland that since we do not have raw materials, our raw material is education.” He added: "We need a personal and collective commitment to ensure that we have a good basic education, good training and especially continuous adaptation training."

Luca Cirigliano, Head of International Affairs at the Swiss Trade Union Confederation, said “accessibility is something that we need to devote attention to - worker’s accessibility to learning and to opportunities to participate.” He also referred to the issue of a “shortage of money and time for people to educate themselves.”