The changing nature of work and skills in the digital age

The ILO participated in a conference which presented a new report on the impact of the digital revolution on labour markets, written by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre.

News | 24 September 2019
A new report entitled “The changing nature of work and skills in the digital age”, written by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, was presented at a conference in Brussels involving several stakeholders, including the ILO.

The report finds that digital technologies do not only create and destroy jobs, they also change the task that people perform on the job, and how they do it. Most jobs that have expanded over the past seven years combine digital skills with above-average social interaction, such as with external clients or within a team.

The increasing use of computers has standardized work procedures in some jobs, while reducing the need for direct social interaction in some sectors, such as in financial intermediation or real estate.

According to the study, over the next decade, workers will be required to have more complex skills sets requiring problem-solving abilities, strong non-cognitive skills – such as social, communication and interpretative skills - and at least a basic knowledge of ICT.

In 2017, 10% of the EU active labour force lacked digital skills, and a further 26% reported only a low level of digital skills. This varies widely across the EU Member States: the share of the active labour force with basic or above basic digital skills ranges from only 34% in Bulgaria to 89% in Luxembourg. The lack of digital skills may prevent many EU workers and companies from fully profiting from the opportunities emerging in the digital economy, the report says.

Uma Rani, Senior Economist at the ILO Research Department, pointed out that the disruptive effects of new technologies should not be ignored, as the technology-induced job losses are often immediate while it takes time for new jobs to be created. There is a need to carefully monitor the tasks that are changing as a result of automation.

She also emphasized that while new jobs destroy old jobs, these new jobs are not necessarily being created in the same areas, sectors and occupations. The research does not track where the low-skilled workers who are losing their job, end up and it is important to understand the labour market transitions as a result of automation. She stressed that the adjustments in the labour market whether it be productivity effect or reinstatement effect are not automatic and require “social, economic and labour market institutions to ensure that workers are protected and reskilled”.

Non-standard forms of employment have been on the rise in the EU, and one of the new forms of work that is emerging is platform work. Eleven per cent of the adult population across the 16 Member States analyzed has provided services on online platforms at least once.
“Platforms have been introduced in almost every sector of our economy, and there is a great variety of tasks”, said Ms Rani.

The tasks that are outsourced are at both the high-end and low-end of the spectrum. At the high-end, you have competitive programming (e.g. wherein big IT companies and clients put complex problems to be solved on platforms), then there is project-based work (translation, transcriptions, project management, designs, software development, etc.), and then you have low-end microtasking such as data cleaning, categorisation, etc. apart from workers in local app-based platforms such as care workers, domestic workers, taxi drivers, among others.
While these platforms provide employment opportunities to workers, there are concerns with regard to their status of employment, remuneration and control over their work through algorithmic management, among others.

As these platforms are not regulated, she concluded by saying that “we need to develop an international governance system for digital labour platforms that requires platforms to respect certain minimum rights. The Maritime Labour Convention, which is a global labour code for seafarers, could be a source of inspiration”.