The working world is changing like never before. Automation in the workplace is advancing rapidly and businesses need to find an innovative solution to keep people in a job. Rehiring a large proportion of the workforce is no longer feasible, which is where reskilling comes into play.

Education and labour experts gathered to discuss new strategies to help workers learn the skills they need to transition into new sectors at the OECD Forum on Tuesday. But is reskilling is the answer, and how can businesses can help employees to increase their labour mobility?

According to a report from McKinsey titled ‘Jobs lost, jobs gained: Workforce transitions in a time of automation’, early or midpoint automation adoption by companies could result in up to 375 million workers (or 14% of the global workforce) needing to transition to a new occupation. Shea Gopaul, executive director of the Global Apprenticeship Network (GAN) said France, for example, is currently facing a high unemployment rate of 9.2% for the first quarter of 2018, yet there are 2,000 to 3,000 open jobs because employers cannot find workers with the right skills. In a recent survey, GAN expected most employers to say that they required technical skills, such as IT skills. However, this was not the case.

“Ironically, the employers are saying what they need are the soft skills,” said Gopaul. “And I’m talking about collaboration, communication skills, working in teams, critical thinking, not just knowing your technical skills but how do you apply this never-ending change environment that we’re in. And lastly, creativity: to be able to think out of the box and to use some of those skills and adapt them to a new environment.”

President of the Canada Labour Congress Hassan Yussuff said during the discussion: “What we are seeing to a large extent is while employers are complaining a lot about what workers don’t have, many of them are not investing their own dollars in trying to train their own people to ensure they have the skills necessary to adapt as their workplace continues to change.”

He also talked of the role of government and trade unions to collaborate, adding: “It is government’s role to bring unions and employees and educators to sit down and figure out how do we continue to devise training to ensure that all workers are going to have the basic fundamental skills as they continue to deal with the challenges in the job market, which are changing on a constant basis.”

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Employers’ role in the reskilling process

Up until now, there has been little action in addressing the scale of mass reskilling in the labour force, despite rising awareness of the problem. Public spending on labour re-training and support has fallen gradually in recent years as has corporate-training schemes.

McKinsey surveyed more than 1,500 respondents from the business and public sector and around 300 executives from large-scale companies (at least $100m in annual revenue). Among the executives, two-thirds agreed that ‘addressing potential skills gaps related to automation/digitisation’ was a top ten priority for their company, while 30% noted it as a top five priority.

Almost two-thirds also believed they will need to retrain or replace more than 25% of their workforce between now and 2023 due to automation and digitisation advancements, and 64% of executives in the US said it was the responsibility of the corporation, and not governments or individual workers themselves. This figure was 59% in Europe. Only 16% of private-sector executives felt ‘very prepared’ to address potential skills gaps and around 30% felt ‘somewhat unprepared’ or ‘very unprepared’.

Gopaul mentioned two companies in particular that have invested in reskilling programmes for workers, Dutch human resources company Randstad and multinational telecommunications giant AT&T.

She said: “We are lucky to have some great examples of Randstad, which is doing some great work in the Netherlands, but also in Spain.  AT&T has a fantastic programme where they now reskill people who are losing their jobs and so if you are losing you are going to lose your job, in your last year you do a part-time apprenticeship in a new area and in a new field.”

Randstad says it is continuously developing data-driven solutions to the skill challenges by combing analytics, new technologies and its bespoke knowledge of talent space to help international organisations find effective ways to reskill their employees. This could be through internal and external training, mentorship programmes, job rotations, and adult apprenticeships.

“This results in agile workforces where continuous reskilling, as an integral aspect of versatility, becomes engrained in the culture,” Randstad wrote on its website. It conceded that increased automation will inevitably lead to some displacements but mitigating these losses to benefit the company and as many workers as possible should be viewed as imperative.

The company added: “As we progress into this new phase, the impact will become more widespread until it is felt by every business across the world. For this reason, building a relationship with a forward-thinking workforce solutions firm like Randstad in a timely manner is nothing short of a strategic decision that can define the future success of your company.”

Likewise, AT&T has said it is investing $1bn to retrain nearly half of its total global workforce, some 125,000 employees in total.

Its global reskilling programme, coined Future Ready, is a web-based, multiyear effort that includes online courses, collaborations with universities through online learning companies such as Coursera and Udacity; and a career centre that allows employees to identify and train for jobs that AT&T will need in the future. Furthermore, an online portal called Career Intelligence allows workers to view available jobs, required skills, potential salary range and the scope of the area.

AT&T senior EVP of human resources said: “It’s important for companies, at the senior level, to engage and retrain workers rather than constantly going to the street to hire.”