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Up-skill to find a job in a digital world of work

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Stefano Scarpetta

Director, Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, OECD

The world of work is changing. Low-skilled workers will struggle to find employment in a digital workplace if they do not up-skill.


Take a librarian. Gone (or almost) are the days when the job involved manually classifying and locating books on dusty shelves. Librarians today need to support research in a digital world, to know about open access and data sharing, and about ownership, rights management and dissemination of digital information.

Similar changes apply to most jobs as new technologies, digitalisation and deepening globalisation are changing the type and quality of jobs and the skills these jobs require.

To help governments, companies and workers navigate this changing world of work, the OECD has developed a new tool to better understand which skills employers want most and which are in less demand.

The OECD Skills for Jobs database measures skill shortages and surpluses in over 40 countries, 17 industries and about 35 occupations. There is no question: high skills are the most demanded.

Across the 40 countries, high-skilled occupations account for more than half of total employment in all occupations where there are shortages. These jobs include managerial positions and highly-skilled professionals like doctors, teachers and IT specialists. Low-skilled workers, by contrast, are less courted by employers; their jobs account for only around 1 in 10 of all jobs in occupations in shortage.  

In emerging economies, lower skill-sets are in high demand

But the average hides big cross-country differences. In Finland, for example, high-skilled jobs account for 90% of employment in all jobs in hard-to-fill occupations. In Mexico and Chile, by contrast, this is true for only 20% of the jobs. In these two countries, and in other emerging economies, shortages are concentrated in medium- and some low-skilled occupations.

The most wanted workers have expertise in computer hardware and software, programming and application. Next come judgment and decision-making skills as well as communication and verbal abilities that help workers acquire and use information needed to solve problems.

Economic growth suffers when education does not meet employment needs

Skill shortages have been increasing in several countries. Employers’ needs are evolving rapidly, and the education and training systems are trailing behind. This is worrying for concerned employers and job seekers and for the economy as a whole because skill shortages slow down innovation, adoption of new technologies and productivity growth. 

Figure 1. Share of employment in occupations in shortage by skill level [1]

To address these challenges, education systems need to become more responsive to labour market needs with closer cooperation between the world of education and the world of work.

On-the-job training is the best way to keep skills up-to-date

Students need better guidance – starting from lower-secondary education – on the potentials of different fields of studies in order to make informed choices. But, skills needs change quickly and the formal education system cannot provide the full response. Learning has to continue throughout the life-course in order for workers to stay employed and/or find new jobs.

Low-skilled workers will struggle to find employment in a digital workplace if they do not up-skill

This is easier said than done. Only about 4 out of 10 adults in OECD countries participate in formal or non-formal job-related training in a given year. A further 11% say they would like to participate but do not do so, and almost half neither participate nor want to participate.

Among the low-skilled, only 20% receive formal or non-formal training. They are the ones most likely to be left behind by the digital transformation.

Governments must invest in their people

Governments and stakeholders in adult learning have several policy levers to address this challenge by enabling adults to make informed choices about education and training, removing barriers to participation in training, providing targeted support, and encouraging employers’ engagement in adult education. 

More than ever, having the right skills is key to success in the labour market. Policy-makers, together with employers and stakeholders, have a daunting responsibility to give everyone the opportunity to develop and adapt their skills. Failing to do so risks further polarising our labour markets and economies between those who can see the bright light of the new globalised and digital era, and the others left behind in the shadow.   


1 Note: High-, medium- and low-skilled occupations are ISCO occupational groups 1 to 3, 4 to 8 and 9, respectively. Shares of employment in each skill tier are computed as the corresponding employment in each group over the total number of workers in occupations in shortage in each country. Data refer to 2017 or closest year available.
Source: Elaborations based on the OECD Skills for Jobs database (2018).

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