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Rethinking public employment services for the digital era

Miguel Peromingo's picture
Digital channels now open more possibilities, improving matching job seekers’ skills and experience with jobs vacancies.  Photo: Gerhard Jörén / World Bank

The discussion around digitization is usually focused on how automation will affect jobs, disregarding how the changing world of work is also transforming the labor markets for the better. Although automation will change many jobs —up to 46% of jobs in developed countries according to a recent OECD report are highly automatable or likely to experience significant changes due to automation— it also holds several opportunities for employment intermediation. Job seekers can take new digital avenues to labor market inclusion, while employment services can also support workers with new ways of finding jobs. Three international experiences show how some countries are utilizing these opportunities.

Matching skills, not degrees

Public employment services were initially born as matching banks to connect job seekers with job vacancies. While the registration of unemployed workers would usually help profile employable skills, many public employment services struggle with getting hold of up-to-date vacancies: 30% of public employment services worldwide do not have a representative coverage of job vacancies or even any direct contact to employers, according to the largest global survey on public employment services.
 
Digital channels now open more possibilities, improving matching job seekers’ skills and experience with jobs vacancies by using talent searching platforms, such us open ones like Monster, semi-open ones with membership access like LinkedIn, or elaborated in-house solutions from public organizations.
 
Public employment services like the Flemish VDAB or the South-Korean KEIS for example have recently introduced Artificial Intelligence support for competence-based matching, where the actual skills of job seekers, independent from their official and certified qualifications, are automatically and bias-free matched with the best available job or task.
 
This approach specifically targets young people who are neither in employment, education or training (NEET), refugees, people over 55 years of age and other job seekers who would not find an easy entry through traditional degree-based matching systems. Thanks to this new competence-based matching, in 2017 VDAB achieved the highest satisfaction rate of employers in the history of the service (above 84%).
 

Upskilling to a digital workforce

Another pre-condition to benefit from gig work and new professions in the automated world is to have the necessary skills to navigate digital environments. The already existing digital divide in society goes beyond mere accessibility of citizens to internet or owning computer hardware and sees gaps between people with high and low digital skill levels equivalent to traditional socio-economic divides and patterns of exclusion.
 
Public employment services can support job seekers, especially the most vulnerable and those who have poor access to a digitized labor market, to learn and use digital skills for the new world of work. Most public employment services do this already or have the infrastructure to do so. According to the global public employment service survey, 60% of the surveyed institutions offer either skills training and/or vocational guidance in-house or through contract providers. In recent years, public employment services are also increasingly using digital training alternatives relying on online learning platforms available off-the-shelf, such as Google for Education (G4E), Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), or webinars for skills training.
 
Public employment services are, furthermore, primary collectors of data on skills and can guide appropriate matching and planning decisions to adjust and complement formal education and training, develop flexible online or on-the-job training opportunities and provide workers the flexibility to combine work and training. Workers with years of undocumented work experience can be supported to structure, update, and use their skills for gigs and a more recognized career planning.
 

Decent work in a gig economy

The gig economy might make it easier for more job seekers to access short-term assignments and task delivery in a digital environment. But not all employers who offer gig work can guarantee decent work conditions or have developed their corporate social responsibility yet. Social protection schemes for gig workers might thus be insufficient or lacking altogether while meaningful and decent working conditions need to be ensured also in a succession of short-term assignments.
 
Governments can support decent working conditions for workers in a gig economy by enforcing adequate earnings (such as respecting minimum wages) and appropriate health and safety for all workers (such as collecting taxes to employers using gig platforms). They can also empower the creation of collective approaches and serve as a platform for workers and workers’ rights. Both could feed into a long-term solution for securing portable social benefits (pension, sick leave, etc.), which are easily transferable across gigs and would become a standard for decent employment.
 
Public employment services can also support larger employers designing and updating their corporate social responsibility by implementing digital solutions in ways that reposition rather than replace human resources. Mercedes-Benz for example is using approaches of Responsible AI, building the necessary trust relationship between humans and machines, and have exchanged robots with highly skilled workers in those manufacturing plants where humans turned out to be the more efficient and adaptable option for customizing cars. By showcasing good examples for decent work in the digital economy, public employment services can further strive as trusted labor intermediaries and emphasize their link to employers.
 
In summary, the digital world offers new opportunities for employment services, job matching, and skills development in a gig economy. A few countries are already exploring some of these approaches. In the context of the changing world of work, a new generation of employment services may well help workers find better jobs, and companies find workers that have the skills they need to build a better workforce.
 
 
Follow the World Bank Jobs Group on Twitter @wbg_jobs.

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