A Closer Look

Future of Work – Five stereotypical claims that are often advanced in debates

In this comprehensive but readable commentary, our Director Jim Stanford challenges five stereotypical claims that are often advanced in debates over the future of work:

  1. Work is not disappearing; it can’t.
  2. Technology is not accelerating.
  3. “Gigs” aren’t even new.
  4. Technology is often more about relationships than productivity.
  5. Skills are not a magic bullet.

On #5: The economy is not held back by a lack of skills.

Conventional economic analysis of technology and work concedes that “disruption” in particular industries and occupations will occur – but the normal equilibrating tendencies of market forces (helped along, when needed, by countercyclical monetary policy) should ensure enough new work is created elsewhere to absorb any displacement. In this view, smoothing the necessary and inevitable transitions (rather than fruitlessly trying to stop them) is the best focus for policy. And in this regard, the call for more and better education and skills always takes top billing. This focus is reinforced by endless complaints from employers that they face a constant shortage of skilled workers; they want government to fix their problem by delivering a bigger supply of job-ready graduates.

These twin claims that the economy is currently held back a lack of skills, and that investing in more skills is the crucial precondition for future prosperity, are both false. Canadian workers are better educated than any generation before them – and better educated than workers in any other industrial country. The OECD, for example, reports that 57% of Canadian workers aged 25-64 have tertiary education, the highest proportion of any OECD country. Education enrolment and attainment is even higher among young workers: the very ones now being told to work gigs, rather than expect a genuine career. But that superior investment in education does not, in and of itself, create jobs in which workers can use those skills (except in the education sector itself, which is an important and growing employer). And unfortunately, millions of Canadians hold jobs that do not remotely require the (expensive) skills and capacities they have acquired. Empirical evidence has shown that conditions of chronic excess supply have sparked an unproductive process of credential inflation, whereby employers’ educational requirements for new hires increase in tandem with the number of desperate applications they receive for each opening.

This is not to say that bigger investments in public education at all levels are not necessary or valuable – whether it’s early childhood education (proven to generate lifetime benefits for employability, wages, and health), to vocational training, to lifelong learning opportunities for employed workers. They are. And while education must never be valued solely as an economic or employment initiative (there are many other benefits of great education for individual, social, and democratic well-being), there are certainly ways that school-to-work transitions and the usefulness of education for employment could be improved. In par- ticular, Canada needs to strengthen, fund, and plan its vocational education system much better. I am a big fan of the vocational training model used in Germany and other European countries, whereby high-quality vocational education is tightly linked to opportunities in regulated trades and careers (with strict qualification and certification requirements that enhance confidence in those skills and boost earnings potential), all supported by pro-active job placement and labour market planning.

Despite those potential benefits, however, skills and training are not a “magic bullet” for our future labour market. We need just as much attention and emphasis on creating jobs for those future, well-skilled workers to occupy. And just as concerned with lifting the quality and security of those jobs, so that the individual and social investments made in further training and education are validated and rewarded.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story @ Five Contrarian Insights on the Future of Work – Centre for Future Work

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