“Skills in Transition”: Highlights from the OECD Forum Virtual Roundtable

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The first OECD Forum virtual roundtable “Skills in Transition” took place on 3 September 2020 to discuss recent changes in the labour market accelerated by the pandemic, which have heightened the urgency of enabling workers to move to lesser-affected sectors. Inspired by recent OECD work on skill measures to mobilise the workforce during the COVID-19 crisis, it explored how to best facilitate such transitions thanks to effective reskilling and upskilling programmes, with leading stakeholders sharing best practices and lessons from experience. 

Setting the scene for the discussion, Glenda Quintini, OECD Senior Economist, Skills Analysis and Policies, noted that the COVID-19 crisis has not only accelerated digitalisation, but also wiped out all progress made since the Global Financial Crisis in terms of employment. She explained that with job vacancies collapsing and shortages starting to emerge, countries put in place quick initiatives to fill skills gaps. In the health sector, governments recalled people who had retired, or mobilised medical graduates who worked in non-medical fields. There were also incentives for geographical mobility, notably in countries such as Italy where the crisis was very localised. Another measure taken was fast licensing of skilled migrant health workers who did not yet have licences to work in their host countries. Efforts to design short and focused training courses, aimed at filling the urgent gaps, further showed that it is possible to design such programmes for adult learners, and to do it online. As explained by Mark Unwin, Advisor (Education & Employment) for the Australian Delegation to the OECD, countries such as Ireland and Australia have also facilitated the match between job seekers and emerging skill needs by using platform matching tools. In sum, Glenda noted that lessons could be drawn from this crisis: to transition large number of job seekers to occupations for which they don’t have a specific training, we need to set up systems to profile their skills, match their skillsets to emerging skills needs, as well as provide training focused on skill gaps.

Read the OECD Policy Response: Skill measures to mobilise the workforce during the COVID-19 crisis

Olivia Chapman, Senior Manager on the Future of Work at Nesta, went on to present some of the effective skills profiling tools already available to  ensure  that  training  is  efficiently  focused  on  the  jobseeker’s  skill  gaps. She explained that the programme Open Jobs uses labour market data to reduce skills mismatches, while tools such as Get My First Job and Pro Finder help match job seekers with opportunities and Be Applied removes unconscious bias from hiring. Olivia leads FutureFit  a programme that examines efficient reskilling programmes in 5 countries, trying to overcome failures in adult education and systematic barriers to reskilling. Drawing lessons from this experience, Olivia stressed the importance of making reskilling programmes data driven and user-centred, as well as the need to create strong partnerships.

Jaap Buis, Global Public Affairs Manager at Randstad, echoed this point by mentioning that Randstad is working with several partners to bring together efficient reskilling programmes. Jaap stressed this is all the more critical as many jobs became more important during the crisis, but not a lot of people thought they had the skills required for these jobs. Too often, people simply do not know what they could do with their skills. Furthermore, their search for new skills does not always translate into trainings being provided, which points to the importance of catering reskilling programmes to workers’ demand, and to make clear what jobs such skills may translate in.

Employers can play a critical role in this respect. Oscar Stege Unger, Director of the Wallenberg Foundations, which has long been focusing on the challenges associated with reskilling and upskilling, explained that he is also a member of the Board of Directors at Scandinavian Airlines (SAS). When the sanitary context led to a board decision to furlough about 90% of SAS staff, it dawned on him that they should be able to re-skill these people, and set up a programme in a very short time to facilitate the transition of about 300 cabin crewmembers into the healthcare system. Key to this achievement was a strong alignment of interest and purpose, the existence of an ecosystem of stakeholders, as well as a sense of urgency and adequate funding. Asked later on about the prospects for similar initiatives in other sectors, Oscar noted that Sweden is lacking 65.000 licenced teachers, but has a large number of engineers looking for jobs. This provides the country with an opportunity to enable a valuable shift of these engineers to become STEM trainers or move into vocational education. Building on these remarks, Michael Hodin, CEO, Global Coalition on Aging, also stressed the gap between the number of elder caregivers available and the rapidly expanding needs associated with ageing societies, pointing to the urgency of enabling workers to move to this sector too.

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Eric Thode, Director of the Programme Rethinking Work at Bertelsmann Stiftung, delved into the lessons that the foundation has drawn over the past months about how different groups of workers react to reskilling programmes and solutions. Distinguishing three groups, he observed that people who are teleworking also require social skills to cope with their new home office environment, but, more fundamentally, have to improve their digital skills, which they have often had to develop swiftly and independently. Contrary to popular belief, especially basic digital skills such as operating a computer or using office software are among the skills employers request the most from their workers. As these workers are now less able to rely on their companies’ IT services, they need to be supported in doing so. A second group of workers, those who lost their jobs and need to find new occupations quickly, may suffer from a discrepancy between short-term alleviation and long-term solutions because the new job might still be threatened over time by ongoing trends such as digitalisation. Finally, workers on short-term working schemes could in principle use their spare time to engage in training more intensively. However, this is made very difficult by the public sector programmes’ strict eligibility criteria and burdensome bureaucracy, which points to the need for business, social partners and civil society actors to step in and complement state-driven projects.

Drawing on a recent paper on how trade unions and social partners can contribute to skills development, Anna Byhovskaya, Senior Policy Advisor, Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD, highlighted three preconditions that need to be worked out everywhere in order for people to get into training. First, the right to paid training leave and financing schemes is key. In this respect, examples to follow include Belgium, where agreements between the government and the social partners allow workers to claim training and retain a credit financed by social security funds, as well as the Netherlands where dedicated funds finance training programmes. Second, diversified training offers are needed since not everyone can pursue long-term training opportunities, while short-term training opportunities are not always sufficient to learn new skills. Third, expanded and better career guidance is also essential, both for the unemployed and on the job.

Read the OECD Policy Brief VET in a time of crisis: Building foundations for resilient vocational education and training systems and more on key policy responses

In turn, Susan Lund, Partner, McKinsey Global Institute, who recently co-authored a report on the Future of Work in Europe, provided insightful examples of what companies can do. Stressing that skills and training are more important than ever, Susan explained that companies still complain that they can’t find people with the right skills, but they can take the matter into their own hands by developing talent pipelines, notably by working closely with education institutes. Through boot-camps, they can further design intensive training programmes that teach the basic minimum skills for a particular position, and further skills can then be developed on the job. Both civil society actors and governments can and should provide valuable support in designing and facilitating such schemes. Redefining job listings constitute another important step that companies can take, as unrealistic — and often unnecessary — degree, and related skills expectations discourage people from applying to open positions. Lastly, Susan emphasised the need to create career pathways for example within the retail sector. Indeed, people in sectors with declining employment demand tend to move to sectors also experiencing declining demand. Companies can play a major role in creating upward mobility, with Susan pointing to the example of a major retail firm, which has created its own academy to train and guide promising cashiers and enable them to become store managers.

Noting that universities are ill-placed to lead the reskilling of workers due to their inability to move fast, Stefanie Schurer, Professor of Economics at the University of Sydney one of the top 5 universities worldwide for the most employable graduates closed the panel discussion by presenting some of the longer-term efforts universities are instead taking to build graduate attributes. She stressed the need for universities to build not only hard skills, but also softer skills (e.g. inventiveness, cultural competence, influence, interdisciplinary effectiveness). In addition, universities and other secondary education institutions are increasingly thinking about resilience a very important skill in a constantly changing labour market, but effective development requires students to gain experience in the professional world. A point echoed by David Hoey, CEO of WorldSkills International, who emphasised the issues faced by young people and the usefulness of internship opportunities in providing students with such skills. Stefanie concluded by observing that “Living labs” represent new ways for universities to collaborate with private and public sector organisations, use research resources to help these institutions work together on a specific problem, and place students into these institutions.

Also on the Forum Network: Embracing Disruption: Youth, skills and resilience by David Hoey, CEO WorldSkills International

In her closing remarks, Glenda Quintini, OECD Senior Economist on Skills Analysis and Policies, stressed that despite the urgency of the moment and a demand for lower skill jobs in retail and health, over the longer term demand is still moving in the direction of high-skilled jobs that require a complex set of technical and soft skills.  She concurred that ensuring paid training leave is critical as the main barrier to participation in training is having the time to do so. Learning online can help bridge this, especially when the lack of basic digital skills can be overcome. Career guidance for adults also remains insufficiently provided, although it is key to letting workers know about the job opportunities available to them. Finally, the OECD is looking at how Artificial Intelligence can be used in training, and notably at how firms and training providers are using AI to tailor their services to user needs. Thanks to such developments, it may become possible to provide training in areas where it was previously thought to be impossible. In the face of what the OECD has labelled as one of the worst jobs crises since the Great Depression, there is no time to waste.

Related topics

Tackling COVID-19 Future of Education & Skills Future of Work

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Willemien Bax

Head, OECD Forum, OECD

Willemien Bax is currently Head of the OECD Forum, the Organisation's largest annual public event. Ms Bax, a Dutch national, has over 20 years of experience in public affairs, working with governments, as well as non-governmental organisations and the private sector. Prior to joining the OECD, from 2001 to beginning 2010, Ms Bax worked with the European Consumers Organisation (BEUC) as Deputy Director-General where she oversaw BEUC’s public affairs and media relations strategies in a number of public policy areas ranging from transparency and governance to food, environment, health, economic and legal affairs. In 2004, she initiated a training programme financed by the European Commission, for all consumer organisations in the EU, as well as potential EU-candidate countries. The training focused on giving consumer organisations the tools to develop effective public affairs and communication strategies. In 2009, in her capacity as European Chair of the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue, she contributed to debates on major international public policy issues such as financial regulation, innovation and energy efficiency.

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