The opportunities and challenges of digitalisation and new forms of work were discussed at a working dinner organised by Cedefop and hosted by Martina Dlabajová MEP at the European Parliament in Brussels on 21 November.

Promoting upskilling and skills policies for workers in the online platform economy and implications of automation and robotisation for changing skill needs and education and training were the main themes of the debate between MEPs, Parliament staff and a Cedefop team of management and experts.

The discussion was chaired by Cedefop Director James Calleja, who welcomed participants and said that the idea behind the event was ‘to share with you our thoughts on our new project on digitalisation.’ He stated: ‘The future of work is conditioned by these new phenomena, which will impact every worker at some point. Adaptability and flexibility are, therefore, important.’

In her opening presentation, Cedefop Governing Board Chair Tatjana Babrauskiene said that digitalisation and automation raise the need for responsive and forward-looking vocational education and training (VET) systems, adding that ‘the real challenge is getting robots and humans to complement and not substitute each other.’

Pros and cons

Cedefop expert Konstantinos Pouliakas presented the implications of the online platform economy, saying that new digital companies become dominant and reshape the labour market, with USA being the leader, and Europe lagging behind. He went on: ‘Most workers like to work in this part of the economy as they appreciate the autonomy it offers and/or have difficulty finding suitable work in their country. They can also use it to gain supplementary income. Preliminary insights into the skills formation of platform workers also show that online labour workplaces are, with the right incentives and policies, breeding grounds for improving, otherwise disadvantaged, workers’ skills.’

According to Cedefop expert Ernesto Villalba, it is clear that the proliferation of informal certifications in the platform economy will pose marked challenges for formal validation systems of non-formal and informal skills.

For companies, the digital transformation is also appealing as it offers flexibility and efficiency, but it needs careful planning, striking a balance between internal and external staff and adapting organisational systems.

With regard to the negatives, Mr Pouliakas stressed the income uncertainty, and the lack of collective bargaining and social insurance, arguing that Europe should adopt a model of the platform economy that is more socially-oriented than at present.

Working together

The host, Ms Dlabajová, thanked Cedefop for organising the working dinner, adding that it was a good opportunity to exchange views, not only with the Cedefop team, but also with her colleagues in the European Parliament: ‘We need to have more clarity about the data and messages on the impact that automation and robots will have on people’s jobs.’

She pointed out the paradox of surveys showing that 75% of Europeans think digitalisation has a positive effect on economy, while about the same percentage believe it will replace more jobs than it will create.

The Czech MEP called for more cooperation between education and business to promote digital skills, soft skills and an entrepreneurial mind, which gives people an open and flexible approach to life. She also stressed the importance of adapting legislation to digitalisation and concluded: ‘Youth employment is my top priority, but young people won’t suffer so much from digitalisation; so we have to find a way of providing continuous training to older workers who are not that familiar with new technologies.’

Action required

Renate Weber MEP shared some of her own concerns, highlighting the need for immediate action on skills: ‘Digitalisation is here; we have a duty to do something now, not in 10 years.’ The MEP from Romania added: ‘In the EU we want to regulate everything; this contradicts the nature of the online platform economy.’

Bulgarian MEP Svetoslav Hristov Malinov, who is also a Professor of Political Science at Sofia University, argued that, compared to VET, ‘universities are so far behind when it comes to modern ways of teaching; it’s all about lectures in an auditorium. Most successful entrepreneurs are university dropouts and their role models are dropouts too.’

According to Michaela Šojdrová MEP, ‘digitalisation increases opportunities and inclusion.’ She sees more strengths than weaknesses in the new forms of work, but warns of risks too, such as the exclusion of older people. The Czech politician contended that Europe is a leader in digital space but needs better internet security.

UK MEP Jean Lambert said that with new forms of work there are opportunities for more cross-border employment, and that in the robot era there will still be a need for humans, but with different skills.

She also made several discussion points: How do you navigate the world of work when more and more is online and there is not a lot of human contact? When it comes to immigration, what can you outsource? What is the applicable law? How do you tax it? And how do you train the trainers so that they have adequate digital skills?

In her intervention, Cedefop Deputy Director Mara Brugia highlighted the capacity to think critically as one of the skills that will be important in the new era, complementing digital skills. She added that work-based learning is changing (practiced in different locations such as the office, the factory, the home etc.), and VET policies are not yet ready to tackle this structural change: ‘Apprenticeships may need to be rethought, as does recognition of skills.’

Cedefop Head of Department for Skills and Labour Market Pascaline Descy stressed the need for a social safety net and for portability of qualifications, and mentioned the right of platform workers to access continuing training.

Participant MEPs affirmed their interest in following and learning more about Cedefop’s new research agenda focused on skills formation and matching of online platform workers and on policies and practices for promoting their continuous learning, which is commencing in December 2017.

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