Published on Let's Talk Development

Missing in action: Where is the “demand” for jobs when we prepare for jobs?

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Are robots, friends or foes of the future of work? Automation is eliminating some routine jobs but, on the positive side, robots are good partners for workers engaged in tasks that demand analytical, interpersonal, and creative skills, as well as manual physical skills involving dexterity.

Many jobs today, and many more in the near future, will require skills that combine technological know-how, problem-solving, and critical thinking as well as socio-behavioral skills such as perseverance, collaboration, and empathy. We have already seen the share of jobs in occupations intensive in these skills increasing since 2001: from 19 to 23 percent in emerging economies and from 33 to 41 percent in advanced economies, according to the 2019 World Development Report.

But the days of staying in one job, or with one company, for decades is waning. Job tenures are becoming noticeably shorter. In the United States, the median job tenure for men aged 45-54 has fallen from 12.8 years in 1983 to 7.9 in 2016. In some European countries, it is younger workers who have seen their job tenures decline, linked to the rise of temporary contracts. Among workers aged 25-29, the share of workers with job tenures less than 12 months, increased from 16 to 24 percent in Austria between 2003 and 2015. In Ireland during the same period, job tenures among this age group increased from 19 to 28 percent; and from 19 to 24 percent in Italy.

Workers will have multiple careers, not just multiple jobs, over their lifetimes. Some will work exclusively in the gig economy. Many children entering primary school this year will work in occupations that do not yet exist. Even in low- and middle-income countries, many people are employed in jobs that didn’t exist three decades ago. India has nearly four million app developers; Uganda has over 400,000 internationally certified organic farmers; and China has 100,000 data labelers.

As the Changing Nature of Work report reveals, there is an acute shortage of workers equipped with the new skills that employers are increasingly demanding. In the STEM sector - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - hundreds of thousands of jobs remain unfilled.

How well countries are able to cope with the demand for changing job skills depends on how quickly the supply of skills shifts. One of the most obvious, yet rare, actions to take is to encourage systematic dialogue and close collaboration between supply and demand.

With 90 percent of employment in the private sector, skills need to be relevant and in demand by firms. It’s all too rare for educators to take part in private sector activities and vice versa.

More needs to be done to bring tertiary education and the private sector closer together by creating knowledge hubs. Knowledge hubs can be engines for developing new capabilities, innovation, and high-tech entrepreneurship. And they can help overcome challenges in the supply and demand of skills.

To prepare its students for the changing labor market, some tertiary institutes are offering entrepreneurship trainings, creating business incubators, or hosting venture capitalists. Since its establishment in 2000, SIDBI Innovation and Incubation Center at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur has incubated 53 start-ups and disbursed seed funds of 50 Crores. Egypt launched its first university incubator, Venture Lab, in 2014.

Well-known examples of successful university innovation clusters, with active and systematic participation of the private sector, are located in the developed world— from Silicon Valley in the US to the UK’s Golden Triangle. But they are also emerging in middle-income countries. The University of Malaya in Malaysia has established eight interdisciplinary research clusters over the last decade, covering sustainability science and biotechnology. Peking University is building Clinical Medicine Plus X, a research cluster for precision medicine, health big data, and intelligence medicine. As part of the Startup India initiative, seven new research parks have been established on Indian Institute of Technology campuses to promote innovation through incubation and collaboration between universities and the private sector. In Mexico, the Research and Technology Innovation Park currently houses more than 30 research centers covering research and development in biotechnology, nanotechnology and robotics. Seven of the centers are led by universities.

Governments play a vital role in ensuring the best conditions for innovation clusters. Providing local infrastructure, supplying finance for research and development, connecting universities with high-quality researchers and private sector innovation, and easing rigid labor market regulations all help. It’s now up to political leaders to turn policies that embrace the changing nature of work into success stories for their citizens.


Federica Saliola

Manager, Jobs Group, Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice

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