OECD Forum 2019 Session: Skills for a Future that Works

OECD Forum 2019 Session: Skills for a Future that Works

This OECD Forum 2019 background note will be used to prepare speakers on the panel Skills for a Future that Works, taking place at the OECD headquarters from 16:45-18:15 on Monday, 20 May. Join the Forum Network to comment and help inform the upcoming debate and, whether you're with us in Paris or watching online, let us know what you think of the session!

Skills for a future that works

The future of skills and the new reality for workers can be a disorienting phenomenon. Technological progress continues to alter the types of jobs we do and the way we do them. The demand for skills is evolving and creating new jobs, but automation is also reducing the need for human involvement in many tasks. A number of low-skilled jobs that exist now will be lost to robots in 10 years. Some even say that 65% of the jobs that will exist tomorrow don’t exist today. Workers are facing significant skills deficits that could exclude them from the job market and students are learning skills that may be obsolete in the future. The right skills for a future that works means we need new approaches in the classroom, continuous learning in the workplace and a serious effort in government ministries to prioritise the right type of investment in skills to prevent a deepening of the digital divide.

In the classroom

Teachers need to adapt teaching methods to ensure that technology in the classroom is being used to aid learning, rather than distracting or causing harm to students. Across OECD countries, 91% of 15-year-olds have access to an internet-enabled smartphone and for tablets it’s 55%. While we need to improve digital skills, too many young people are still lacking basic numeracy and reading skills that will allow them to use technology effectively at school, and later in the workplace. Equipping teachers with the right approaches to make the most of technology must be a priority.

Recent OECD findings suggest that even holding a university degree will not guarantee a high level of the right skills in the workplace. Learning knowledge is important, but with information available with a few clicks, the way we apply knowledge and learn from it should be a priority in the way teaching takes place. Thriving in an unpredictable world of work means complementing numeracy, literacy and ICT skills with socio-emotional skills, creativity and critical thinking as well as other soft skills. 

In the workplace

All workers need to continuously maintain or upgrade their skills all through their working lives. In OECD countries, 35% of workers say they do not have all the skills needed to do their jobs fully and need more training. We need continuous on-the-job learning systems that allow adults to regularly update or upgrade, and sometimes acquire completely new knowledge and skills so that they can stay in work or transition to other jobs. A recent study shows how with just one year of training, workers at high risk from automation could move to a better quality, more secure job.

Workers also need the right types of incentives to acquire the skills they need most. In the OECD, only two in five adults take part in education and training in any given year. Providing effective information and guidance on jobs and skills can incentivise workers to pursue productive training options. Giving them a read-out of their skills (similar to a report card) and by anticipating the skills they’ll need throughout their working lives would also provide solid motivation to get training. We need to find ways to encourage employers to provide training for skills that people, especially low-skilled workers, could use in their next jobs, even though they might not be relevant in their current one. Skills development should be given greater prominence in social dialogue, too, as we broaden the scope beyond wage bargaining.

In government ministries

A healthy skills outlook for the future of work is largely dependent on sound policy decisions and financial planning. Finance ministries need to promote policies that encourage working and learning through flexible education and training programmes. Deeper investment in active social spending for the unemployed and workers at risk of their skills becoming redundant is urgently needed. Recent OECD estimates put the total cost of helping workers transition from occupations at high risk of automation from 0.5-2% to 1-6% of one year’s GDP. We need policies that remove time and financial constraints to participation in training.

In the area of taxation, we have seen a number of recent initiatives, such as the OECD/G20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project to address the tax avoidance of multinational enterprises. Sources of revenue of this nature should be considered to plug the skills funding gaps and we should prioritise informal learning in the workplace which could help lower costs which have been estimated to be up to 10% of GDP to reform training systems. 


Sparking policy action that brings reform to education and action on skills could lead to better outcomes for all. Education and training policies need to be co-ordinated with the technological trajectory and financial planning in countries to ensure workforce skills are supported by the right level of investment in digital infrastructure. The future of work is now – and we need to get skills right today to build a future that works for all. 

Globalisation and increasing digitalisation are transforming jobs as we know them and raising pressing questions:

  • How are these changes reshaping the quality and quantity of jobs and the skills needed to perform them?
  • What training do we need – today and for the future of work?
  • What needs to change in schools to ensure that young people have the right skills for their future working lives?
  • How can we develop adaptable social security, unemployment, health and pension systems, ensuring that people have the confidence and resilience to make job switches and continue to invest in their skills throughout their working lives?
  • Who should bear the responsibility for helping people to refresh their skills or gain new ones: workers themselves, their employers or the government? How can workers be encouraged to continue developing their skills throughout their lives?

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