​Investing in people will be necessary to address a future workplace transformed by technological changes, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).

The Geneva-based United Nations agency charged with setting international labor standards is calling for employers, labor organizations and governments to take up its "human-centered agenda" to stave off the loss of jobs due to the rise of automation, the growing skills divide and demographic changes pressuring labor markets.

The experts and senior leaders representing business, academia, trade unions and nongovernmental organizations serving on the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work undertook a 15-month review and produced a report in January asking world leaders to enshrine a host of worker protections, including the right to a living wage and maximum limits on working hours; freedom from forced labor; regulatory oversight of data use, artificial intelligence and gig economy platforms; and a universal entitlement to lifelong learning that enables people to skill, reskill and upskill.

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Lifelong Learning

The ILO said that governments, employers, educational institutions and workers have responsibilities to build and finance effective lifelong learning.

The agency defined lifelong learning as encompassing "formal and informal learning from early childhood and basic education through to adult learning, combining foundational skills, social and cognitive skills, and the skills needed for specific jobs, occupations or sectors."

The International Organization of Employers (IOE), the business representative within the ILO, responded that "improving the design and delivery of high-quality education for all and skills anticipation is key to ensuring equal opportunities … to facilitate workers' employability and cope with increased labor market transitions." But it also found the ILO recommendation lacking pragmatism, noting that some countries' citizens still don't have the basic right to education, and no country has been able to adequately design, implement and deliver a lifelong learning system.

Lynn Shotwell, senior vice president and head of global outreach and operations for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), believes that employers will need to anticipate and provide workplace training to mitigate skills gaps in the years ahead.

"Employers and HR in particular have to start thinking about what skills and competencies they have in the workplace today and what they think they might need in the future," she said. "Then it's a matter of figuring out how to partner with local educational institutions to help develop those skills or help build them in-house or provide other opportunities … so workers are prepared for whatever the openings are in the future."

The IOE supports the use of digital technologies to enable broad participation in training and work-readiness programs, such as apprenticeships, for building the skills needed in the labor market.

The ILO also proposed "establishing a system of entitlements" that would allow workers to take paid time off for training, regardless of the type of work they do; setting up national education and training funds in countries where most workers work off the grid in jobs without employment contracts; and establishing a common skills-recognition framework at the national and international levels to make skills portable.

"A strong lifelong learning system, combined with universal social protection, enables workers to assume their responsibility to engage proactively in their own learning," the ILO said. "This involves anticipating the skills they will need to remain employed, identifying how to acquire them and engaging in the necessary training, knowing that they can invest the time and take the risk."

Transition Assistance

The ILO is also asking that global stakeholders consider the typical transitions workers face—from school to work, changing jobs, moving into retirement—which will be disrupted by the global technological and demographic transformations under way.

"The Baby Boomers are retiring in the U.S.," Shotwell said. "There are large, disproportionate youth populations in other parts of the world. How do we transition the Baby Boomers out but keep them employed in some capacity, and learning new skills? On the other side, is the educational system producing the skills that youth need? Do we need more work-based learning opportunities like apprenticeships?"

The ILO called for the expansion of public employment services, as well as a more proactive role for the private sector in offering young people quality apprenticeships and work-based learning opportunities, and providing older workers with flexible working arrangements that include reduced hours and the option to telework.

The IOE supports the recommendation generally, especially in recognizing the role of the private sector in offering young people opportunities to work, including through apprenticeships.

"The traditional model of apprenticeship, where a high-school student chooses an apprenticeship rather than a college education, is being disrupted," Shotwell said. "New models involve workers with some work experience or higher education behind them changing careers in order to learn new skills and transition into new jobs."

One Case in Point: Manufacturing

Manufacturing is one sector in acute need of workforce reskilling, said Jim Vinoski, a manufacturing expert based in Grand Rapids, Mich.

A 2018 World Economic Forum report shows that manufacturing production jobs are projected to suffer a net decline between now and 2026. "The workers in those jobs will require help in transitioning to either different jobs in their existing companies or completely new jobs with other firms," Vinoski said. "With the main driver of those job eliminations being advances in manufacturing technology, there will be an accompanying increased need for skilled technicians in the industrial world."

Vinoski explained that the report maps out the most viable job-transition opportunities for different types of workers. Understanding transition pathways "can help manufacturers assist displaced workers in retraining for either a new position internally with the company or as part of outplacement assistance," he said. "An industrial firm shedding workers could work closely with a construction firm in need of employees to jointly provide reskilling education. Companies can also identify those economic sectors that are expecting growth in coming years, to more effectively target new job pathways for their displaced workers."

What's SHRM Doing?

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is taking on the issues presented in the International Labor Organization (ILO) and World Economic Forum reports, urging and empowering HR professionals and their organizations to create alternative educational and career pathways, support work-based skills building, foster mentoring programs for young people and advocate for hiring from underrecruited talent pools.

"Workplace issues are front and center on the global stage today, and SHRM is a part of that conversation," said Lynn Shotwell, senior vice president and head of global outreach and operations for SHRM. "These discussions—how do we get everyone ready for the jobs of the future, how do we have diverse and inclusive workplaces, how do we create migration policies that deal with today's labor needs—all of those things are being discussed in multiple places. Whether it's at the ILO or at the G-7 or G-20 meetings, we are having the conversations."

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, was appointed to the U.S. government's American Workforce Policy Advisory Board in February to provide insight on how the government, educators and employers can train workers and reduce the skills gap.

Taylor also sits on the board of the Global Apprenticeship Network (GAN), founded in 2012 by multinational companies and international organizations, including the ILO and the IOE, to promote work-based learning, especially for youth.

"The GAN grew out of discussions at the G-20 in Geneva, where there was a recognition that we needed to upskill youth for jobs of the future," Shotwell said. "It works with local and national networks to create work-based learning programs on the ground."


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