• Opinion
  • January 17, 2019
  • 7 minutes
  • 2

Inequality will define the future of work — unless citizens get to co-design policy

Opinion: Without improving access to training, digital transformation may drive inequality

skills policy

This piece was written by Jack Orlik, a senior researcher at Nesta. For more like this, see our future of work newsfeed.


In my previous post about Nesta’s Digital Frontrunners, I introduced four challenges  governments need to prioritise so that all citizens can benefit from digital transformation. I stressed the need to anticipate the shifting demand for skills in the labour market, and described two initiatives that are using machine learning to predict which skills will be needed.

This post presents the second challenge: skills policy must serve the diverse needs of many workers in different contexts.

If inequalities are not addressed, digital transformation will have negative consequences

The displacement of workers by robots has been a compelling headline since 2013, when Osborne and Frey of Oxford University predicted that 47% of US jobs are at high risk of automation. Others have since have argued that many jobs will change rather than be destroyed by automation, but it remains clear that workers risk unemployment if they do not have the skills to adapt.

Job losses across dozens of sectors and industries would have severely negative consequences for society

Job losses across dozens of sectors and industries would have severely negative consequences for society as a whole.

Unemployment leads to strain on the household, poorer health and well-being, and even an increased risk of mortality. New jobs found by displaced workers are often of lower quality and pay — for example precarious and lower-skilled jobs in the “gig economy”. And if you don’t use your skills, you lose them. Being unemployed or in the wrong job results in skills degradation and a drop in human capital that is detrimental to the wider economy.

Learning new skills can help workers to adapt to changes in their jobs and smooth their transition into new roles, but those that need training the most are not getting it. The OECD finds that “low- and medium-skilled workers are the least likely to receive training, even though they may be facing the greatest risk of job loss”.  Similarly, women participate less in training than men, despite doing more work that is automatable on average.

SME employees, who are at a greater threat of job losses through firm closure, receive less training than workers in large firms. Self-employed workers or those on short term contracts are also less likely to participate in training.

Uptake of training is often split along pre-existing fault lines of inequality

The upshot is that the uptake of training is uneven, and often split along pre-existing fault lines of inequality. Without a more inclusive approach to skills policy, we’re looking at a future in which society is increasingly divided between those who have the opportunity to learn new skills, and those who don’t.

To design inclusive skills policies, governments should include citizens in policy design

To reach the people who need it, skills development for the future of work cannot be delivered with “one-size-fits-all” approach. Different people have different challenges, lifestyles, and requirements, and policymakers need to have a clear understanding of the people they want to serve. What works for a full-time employee with no children will not be effective for a freelance parent.

Qualitative research — including focus groups and ethnographic research — is an effective way to build deeper insight into citizens’ lives. Policymakers can also draw on the knowledge of front-line staff who are in frequent contact with groups that require support and training. These people are likely to have a strong understanding of the services and policies that will work on the ground.

The Digitaal.Talent@Gent initiative in Belgium shows how effective this collaborative, research-driven approach can be. From its launch in 2006, the programme has engaged citizens, social partners and other stakeholders throughout the city to design services for digital inclusion. The initiative has already improved the skills of over 20,000 people per year — with research, feedback and evaluation driving continued development.

This achievement demonstrates the value of user-centred (or human-centred) design techniques in designing skills policy — a value increasingly recognised and utilised by governments that want to make access to training more inclusive.

This approach employs a variety of research and co-creation methods to help policy teams build a coherent picture of the needs of the citizens and other stakeholders that will engage with or “use” a policy or service. Multiple possible solutions are drafted and prototyped in response to these needs, rather than a single top-down strategy being rolled out. “Users” can be invited to evaluate potential solutions and make suggestions for improvement or adaption in different contexts.

As Digital Frontrunners progresses in 2019, we will be exploring how governments can apply these methods to build more inclusive labour markets. We believe that involving users in the policy design process will ensure that new policies and services for skills development are accessible to everybody who needs them — and prevent digital transformation from becoming a driver for inequality. — Jack Orlik

(Picture credit: Flickr/US Department of Education)

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