Smart Skills: Putting the digital transition to work

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May 11, 2019
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This article is part of the Forum Network series on Digitalisation and will feed into upcoming discussions at OECD Forum 2019.

To understand the workplace of the future, the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas is a good place to start. This year’s CES had a big focus on smart homes and smart assistants. Today, consumer technology leads the way – and workplaces follow. 


The key technology behind all of this is artificial intelligence (AI). This is not a new idea. It’s already widely deployed in many commonly-used applications – think Gmail, YouTube or Google Translate. AI is already making people’s daily lives easier but it is also growing its impact in the office, the laboratory and on the road.

Google is an AI-first company, and we are optimistic about the impact these technologies can have. At the same time, we are realists and not utopians. We recognise that such powerful technology raises equally powerful questions about its use. How AI is developed and used will have a significant impact on society for many years to come. As a leader in AI, we feel a deep responsibility to get this right. 


Just over a year ago, we worked with McKinsey on a study that looked at the impact of current technologies like AI and robotics on work in the Nordics and Benelux countries. They found that using new tech will change the nature of work (44% of work hours could be automated) and have a big impact on jobs (up to 19% of jobs are at risk), while at the same time potentially doubling the number of ICT jobs and delivering a potential net rise in total jobs. Because though some jobs disappear, new ones are created – who would have heard of big data analysts 20 years ago? So, the wider story is the potential for a big boost to productivity, opening the way to better wages and providing a means to tackle the challenge of ageing populations in many countries.

That all represents a lot of change. Can we handle it? We believe there are grounds for optimism. Our societies have managed the change from agriculture to manufacturing and most recently to services, changes driven by new technology but also by social progress. And it can be a positive change – delivering safer and more interesting jobs, and tools that improve important services like healthcare, education and transport. 

So how do we get ready? McKinsey’s research shows that we will need different skills, and they will need to be refreshed more often. We can expect a growing demand for soft skills and both basic and advanced digital skills. People will need to retrain roughly every 10 years. That’s a huge scale but the return on investment for people, firms and countries would be massive. 

Photo by Steven Lelham on Unsplash

Our view is that skills and learning will be the key factor in determining whether our societies can grab the benefits and manage the transition. The ability to learn quickly will be the key competence that people will need in the future. 

Our experience makes us optimistic about the growing demand for skills and the diverse solutions that are emerging. Since 2014, our Grow with Google programme has trained 10 million people in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. By 2020 we will help one million Europeans find a job or grow their business. 

But industry action is only one part of this debate – a wider effort is needed. 

First, we need to start with vision and leadership. A great example came from Sweden’s new government where Prime Minister Lofven put skills at the top of his new government’s agenda, with a commitment to help everyone build on their knowledge and reshape their skills as well as a series of concrete measures to boost adult education. 

Photo by NESA by Makers on Unsplash

Second, is informed dialogue. The OECD Forum Engagement Group is a great example of dialogue in action. Dialogue will need the contribution of experts and a stream of high quality research and we welcome the Nordic Council of Ministers research programme on the future of work as well as the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work.

ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work: Work for a brighter future

Third, is partnerships. No single stakeholder can work this out in splendid isolation. Denmark’s Disruption Council brings together government, industry and trade unions to look at the possibilities and challenges of digital transformation. 

At Google we see huge value in partnerships. Grow with Google is mainly done with and through dozens of partners – national governments, city governments and education partners. We’re also partnering with trade unions – for example we’ve run a pilot training program with the CNV trade union in the Netherlands to train logistics workers in “21st century skills” (digital + soft skills) and career counseling. 

Fourth, we need to develop new ideas and experiment. Finland is a leader here, with the government promoting a culture of experimentation and launching the Experimental Finland programme to help tackle social challenges in the digital age. A great example is the effort to educate 1% of the Finnish population on AI with an online training program called Elements of AI. 


Industry, together with governments and civil society, needs to show leadership, engage in informed dialogue, develop ideas and experiment together to move forward, ensuring every worker can benefit from the digital transition. 

What is your contribution to the future of work?

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Related Topics

Future of Education & SkillsArtificial IntelligenceNew Jobs & OccupationsOECD Forum 2019

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Iarla Flynn

Director of Public Policy, Northern Europe, Google

1 Comments

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Marketa Melenova 1 day ago

Thank you for listing the highlights and sharing those valuable resources. This is an exciting era we live in. I wish I can help my country move forward with these transitions. We need to discover and learn and discover... This is the best cure to fear of future people often feel.