The world’s experience with the coronavirus pandemic sheds new light into the long-standing debate on how automation and artificial intelligence will affect the ‘future of work’. Cedefop’s skills forecasts on health workers have never been more relevant.

Much of this debate tended to focus on the (now much discredited) ‘doom and gloom’ scenario of about half of all jobs in advanced economies becoming obsolete due to the onset of the ‘second machine age’. However, Cedefop’s skills analysis, carried out in cooperation with Eurofound in 2017-18, persistently highlighted one key fact that was overseen in the pre-pandemic policy arena: the anticipated rise in demand for social serving/attending and other social care tasks in the future EU labour market (Figure 1).

Recent research estimating the risk of automation in EU job markets, carried out by Cedefop expert Konstantinos Pouliakas, has also highlighted that since some EU jobs are highly dependent on customer- or patient-serving skills and interpersonal skills, healthcare professionals and technicians belong to the occupational groups least likely to be automated in Europe (Figure 2). Caring and social tasks and skills are hence a cornerstone of future employment demand, as they are not easily routinised and cannot be readily substituted by digital technologies or offshored.

Inadequate health and social care investment, despite early warnings

Figure 1

Figure 2

Health sector growing

In hindsight, a key strength of the Cedefop approach to anticipating skill demand in EU labour markets is its holistic way of considering both economic and demographic trends in skill demand and supply. The soon-to-be launched 2020 Cedefop skills forecast, further shows that the demand for jobs in the health sector will be one of the highest growth areas in Europe. The human health and social work sector is expected to create the largest number of new jobs, with almost 2.5 million across the EU-27 during the period 2018-30.

Demand for health professionals (medical doctors, nurses, etc.), as well as associate professionals (medical and nursing technicians, etc.), is also expected to grow, not only in the healthcare industry but across several sectors of the economy (e.g. pharmaceuticals, accommodation, personal service services, education).

Cedefop’s skills forecast estimates that in the period 2018-30 there will be a need for almost 4 million health professionals, across all industries, in the EU-27. This estimate breaks down into 600 000 new jobs and 3.4 million job openings due to replacement needs (leaving the workforce due to retirement, etc.). To a large extent, this stems from a need to take care of Europe’s ageing population, gearing economic activities away from the consumption of goods, towards health, care and other related services.

Investment needed

Healthcare professionals are relatively insulated from occupational restructuring that may occur due to technological developments and other factors. As Cedefop expert Ilias Livanos notes, ‘the coronavirus crisis will further reinforce the needs for healthcare workers in our projections, so more investment in our public health systems is imperative to safeguard us against similar situations in the future.’

It is always the safest of bets for forecasters to claim ex post prediction accuracy. But what is striking is that such skill forecasts had long indicated that healthcare workers will be more relevant than ever, and that the nature of their work renders them impervious to the onset of new digital technologies. It took the coronavirus crisis for all to realise that it is only with the stamina, altruism, humanity and professionalism of our healthcare heroes that we can manage to fight our way out of the greatest public health crisis of recent times.