Oct 22, 2020 04:32 PM

Opinion: How to Protect Workers in the Wake of the Pandemic

Saadia Zahidi is managing director of the World Economic Forum.

For years, the technological changes of the Fourth Industrial Revolution have ushered us closer and closer to the future of work, as emerging technologies automated work processes in some roles and industries and created new opportunities in others. The Covid-19 pandemic has sped up that transformation. The future of jobs is almost here.

Covid-19 has upended economic activity around the world, causing spikes in unemployment in many economies and deepening inequalities across economies and societies. To put it into historical context, the pandemic has destroyed more jobs in two months than the Great Recession in the United States did in two years.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, released Tuesday, finds that more than 80% of employers expect to make wider use of remote work and to digitize work processes. About half of all employers are also preparing to automate some work. Unless more is done to invest in growth jobs and sectors we may be heading for a jobless recovery. Data from our partners show that those who are currently being displaced from the labor market are on average more likely to be female, younger and have a lower wage.

Now in its third edition, the report finds that job creation will continue to outpace job destruction, but with the rate of job creation slowing while the rate of job destruction is speeding up. More than 85 million jobs in medium and large businesses will likely be displaced across 15 industries and 26 countries by 2025. In just five years the amount of time spent on tasks at work by humans and machines will be equal.

At the same time, we find that by 2025, we could see the emergence of 97 million new roles that are adapted to the new division of labor between humans, machines and algorithms in emerging industries, such as data and AI, as well as sales, marketing and content roles.

“To put it into historical context, the pandemic has destroyed more jobs in two months than the Great Recession in the United States did in two years.”

The workplace itself is changing, as well, with a rise in remote working, necessitated by the spread of Covid-19. Employers hope to enable remote work across 44% of their workforce, but data shows that invariably not all workers can work remotely, and this possibility varies by countries’ income level and scale of digital penetration. The future of work is likely to be underpinned by hybrid working approaches. While this emerging marketplace for remote and hybrid work offers potential to redefine what it means to work, it largely pertains to the online, white-collar workforce who have Internet access and the ability to perform jobs from home.

In the face of these unprecedented shocks and underlying long-term structural shifts, government and business leaders must take immediate action to support those who are out of work now or are likely to be most affected by these trends in the future.

The double disruption of automation and the pandemic has made it painfully clear: we cannot afford to wait any longer for a reskilling revolution.

The Future of Jobs Survey data shows that nearly half of all workers will need reskilling, up 4% compared to last year. Employers are increasingly recognizing the value of investing in their employees’ skill development — an average of 66% of those surveyed said they expect to see a return in investment in reskilling and upskilling with a year. These efforts are also increasingly moving to online platforms, suggesting a move significant shift to digital-first learning.

A series of interconnected approaches can support workers.

First, we must protect workers during times of transition while also proactively creating the jobs of tomorrow. Governments must ensure there are adequate social safety nets to protect unemployed workers, and deploy these safety nets precisely. They must also support investments into markets of tomorrow which benefit society, including those such as EdTech, the care economy, and the green economy, which also create new jobs.

Second, we must invest in mid-career job transitions and reskilling, upskilling and training programs. Businesses and government need to together work to help people transition to the jobs of tomorrow by agreeing on new approaches to hiring for skills and potential, rather than degrees, co-funding training programs, and deploying online learning to support workers. The Reskilling Revolution platform, launched in January 2020, aims to provide better education skills and jobs to 1 billion people by 2030.

Third, we must redefine business priorities and practices to address the rising global threats of climate change and social inequality. Environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues must be at the core of business decisions. Among the core metrics that can focus businesses towards a sound future of jobs are the hours of training undertaken by employees; average training investment by company and keeping track of pay inequities.

And finally, any efforts must ensure employee wellbeing. Covid-19 has caused a myriad of stresses to life, heath and overall well-being, from the threats of the virus to the demands of caregiving. New data from the report shows that about 78% of employers think that the current models of remote work, in which people are also dealing with these additional stresses, could hurt productivity. More than 34% surveyed said they are looking to build out practices that support an increased sense of community and communication.

Covid-19 has presented us the opportunity and responsibility to pursue a great reset of work. An estimated up to 115 million people could fall into extreme poverty in 2020 as a result of this recession, and millions more could see their livelihoods disrupted. We owe it to all of them to act now.

The views and opinions expressed in this opinion section are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial positions of Caixin Media.

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