I had the opportunity to be in Dublin earlier this month for the Irish Government’s ‘Future of Jobs’ summit. One year on from the first such summit and an important milestone as the Government prepares for the launch of Future Jobs Ireland 2020, this was a significant event. Contributors included Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, seven Government Ministers, a keynote address from Saadia Zahidi (Managing Director for the New Economy and Society at the World Economic Forum) and 200 representatives from business, the public sector, academia and civil society. Here’s a few thoughts I took away with me:
- The importance of joined up government
At the Trust we work with national and local governments across the UK and Ireland and internationally. I am fairly certain we have not been involved in many initiatives which have so visibly brought so many different portfolio holders (business, trade, employment, education and skills, environment, agriculture, community development) plus the head of government together to lean in on a specific policy goal. While Ireland’s future of jobs initiative is still in its infancy, this cross-government approach suggests a level of prioritisation and desire to think systemically that can only be beneficial. Also worth noting was the form of engagement at the summit, where each Minister facilitated (rather than addressed) a break-out session then fed back to the main hall on the key points discussed by participants, helping to build a sense of a two-way dialogue towards achieving system change.
- Long-term view and immediate action
A second positive reflection was the point made repeatedly by Government representatives that the future of jobs initiative is a multi-year framework with a medium-term horizon. Setting the parameters in this way from the outset, while using the approach to bring through specific programmes now (a 300 million euro investment in higher education was launched at the summit) feels like an effective approach to breaking down traditional delivery cycles which can hinder progress on big, complex, strategic issues.
- We need quality for all
A crucial aspect that currently appears to be understated in the future of jobs debate however, is a strong focus on ensuring that all future jobs, in all sectors and at all levels, are designed to improve worker wellbeing. Ensuring that people have the right skills for the economy of the future, in order to maximise their employment and income potential, is of course vital for individuals, for communities and for an economy as a whole. In Ireland, the recent memories of the great recession and the impact it had on employment make these considerations all the more pressing – a point reflected upon by the Taoiseach. It is important however that we don’t lose sight of the fact that not all jobs of the future will be high skill, high tech jobs and it is therefore incumbent upon policymakers to also consider the range of levers they have available to improve the experience of work for those in the lowest paid, most precarious, most challenging sectors and roles. What might be done to increase pay; boost job security; nurture decent training and progression routes; improve management practices; build a better work-life balance and strengthen employee engagement and involvement for the benefit of all workers in all sectors – but especially those least likely to currently enjoy these characteristics in their job? These considerations have a vital place in any debate about future jobs.
- The voice of workers
Building on this point, workers have a central role to play in describing their hopes and fears for the future jobs they might undertake, the opportunities that they seek, the risks they are prepared to take and the real constraints that they experience – as well as, of course, what they value about work and how that might be achieved. There appears to be scope for the voices of workers in Ireland to play a greater role in shaping the priorities and focus of the future jobs agenda, which may in turn lead to a wider perspective on job quality and wellbeing.
- The value of learning from others
A final positive reflection on the approach being adopted in Ireland to the future jobs debate is the desire to learn from experiences elsewhere about how such changes in the economy and the labour market can be best achieved. The international collaboration being advanced through the ‘human capital’ initiative is one important example of this, while at the summit the number of representatives from different countries contributing to the debate to share their own experiences and reflections was notable and highly welcome.
- Technology as a means not an end
Finally, any debate about future jobs naturally has a strong technology focus as we consider the impact that automation may – or may not – have upon the economy, labour market, industries, skills and jobs. At times this discussion can feel deterministic - as ‘technology’ sets the agenda and people and countries hurry to respond. Of course, however, the impact that technology has on our jobs and workplaces is determined by people, who decide which technological advancements we invest in; how these are deployed; and the laws, policies and regulations that determine how technology should be used in the workplace and how labour markets more generally should operate. Any focus on future jobs must always remember that the way the technological future plays out is not inevitable – it’s for us all to shape together.
Douglas is Head of Advocacy at the Carnegie UK Trust, where he leads the organisation’s Digital Futures and Fulfilling Work policy and development programmes.