Skills of the future: An interview with Francesca Rosso

The world is unpredictable. Crisis seems to beget crisis: a financial one, then a pandemic, followed by the first major war in the European theatre in decades. Change seems to be the only constant. How do you predict the future of work and the skills that people will need?

Five years ago, as an increasingly digitalised and automated world loomed, sundry studies pointed toward a transformation in the nature of work in the European Union. Paltry work had been done on EU neighbourhood countries, many of which are candidate members. Using both traditional empirical research methods and big data, an initial study by the the European Training Foundation (ETF) came up with more than expected, recalled Francesca Rosso, ETF Human Capital Development Expert and Coordinator for Skills Demand Analysis.

“We discovered that digitalisation and automation were not the only factors impacting the future of work and skills,” she said. “Everywhere we found a huge driver in the green transition.” Rosso added that “They see it as an opportunity for development... They have to embed greener development models to compete at the international level.” This is especially true for countries that want to export goods to the EU or the United States, but also in the case of Egypt, a country blessed with enough sun and wind to create a renewable energy hub.

What’s more, “the starting point counts, [but a] country can take decisions that will shape the future. The future is not pre-written,” Rosso said.

What`s even more, innovation is not a one-way street. “Many EU neighbouring countries are not only recipients of innovation,” she said. “They create digital transformation as well.” This can even happen in what are considered traditional sectors, such as agriculture. Pushing both the digital and green buttons, agronomists in Morocco created and adopted advanced technology to improve irrigation techniques.

As the world turns, as expected, highly-skilled workers will find themselves in greater demand. But middle-skilled workers will also be needed. “There is a tendency to up-skill some workers, for instance, in the case of the Turkish automotive sector,” Rosso said. Once just cogs in an assembly line, performing routine tasks, people now operate sophisticated machinery or computers. These people have a new name: not white collar, not blue, but grey.

Studies are nice, but they don`t directly solve real world problems. ETF uses studies like the one mentioned above as the groundwork for further intervention. The first way this happens is through partnerships with partner countries. “The real core function of ETF is applied research,” Rosso said. “We take the findings and use them in policy dialogues in countries.”  

That kind of work breaks down into two parts: short-term and long-term.

“We try to work with countries to develop some quick wins,” she said. In Armenia, ETF is working with the Ministry of Employment and the Ministry of Education in the construction sector to discover “how it is changing and new job profiles.” Armenia also offers a flip-side example because it is also working on a new employment strategy. “They will try to decide on a number of key actions to improve the labour market,” she said. “We are in dialogue with them and will advise the Ministry on its plan.”

Despite the frequent need for short-term intervention, Rosso added that “We acknowledge that you also need a longer-term perspective. To change a whole education and training system takes many years. It is not something that you can deliver immediately.”

In addition to working with EU neighbours, the ETF assists EU entities and member countries with their missions either in Brussels or in the field. “They implement and finance development programs in the countries,” she said. “Our role is to provide technical expertise.”

Another ETF job is to step back, look ahead, and think creatively. A case in point: Platform Work in the Western Balkans. Two years into the Future of Work project, in 2019, ETF noticed a slight upsurge in platform work in the region. The nascent trend hovered completely off the policy-making radar. Nobody was asking for help. But it was important. “We launched a series of studies in different regions,” Rosso recalled.

The initial results were probably predictable: most platform workers were young, male urbanites. They were divided into two main groups: those who were location dependent, such as delivery people or cab drivers, and those who were location independent but more highly skilled. The lack of women led to an investigation about their role. “We asked ourselves what's the impediment for them to enter these platforms?” Rosso recalled. After all, flexible platform work might appear attractive for women who need to juggle work and family obligations. Plus, in some places, women may often not feel safe taking public transportation to a regular job, she noted.

In terms of upscale platforms for coders, designers and the like, one explanation could be the legacy issue of fewer women in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) to begin with. It also appears that some women disguise their gender on platforms by using aliases. Possible explanations could include a concern about not being selected for a job or being asked to work for less money, Rosso noted.

Both on the issue of women and in general, additional research must be carried out about platform work in the partner countries. “We need to understand more,” Rosso said.

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