We are facing the greatest socio-economic challenge in history, on the threshold of something that we will call the Fifth Industrial Revolution and that will bring us closer to a world in which everything we do now, in a certain way, must be rethought. Labour, the social and the political. When we address competences for the digital transformation, content is not just media literacy or programming skills, as the target is not just youth but global citizens. This is an important base to understand the scope of this transformation, competence-based learning is an approach to empower all digital learners to use technology well, safely and awarely, improving their life in the process.
From one perspective, the rise of social movements for inclusion, diversity, human rights and the environment are making this the most human and solidary era in history. From the other side, although the automation of the world does not seem like great news for many people, this will most likely end up becoming also the most technological era ever seen, something that is not incompatible.
A survey by IBM (IBM 2019) that builds on the PWC report (PWC 2018) on the theoretical robbery of jobs in the hands of robots shows how more than 120 million workers worldwide will need specific training in the next three years due to the impact, especially, of artificial intelligence on their jobs. The figures linked to purely industrial robotisation do not appear here. This should undoubtedly be one of the major concerns of all public administrations. If there is a shortage of talent in the areas where it is going to be needed to focus human work, why are we not setting the path so that we do not have a frontal collision with a reality which we can already see and would have catastrophic consequences?
The Gap Gets Wider
Today, on average, workers need 36 days of training to eliminate a gap in their competences. Just five years ago, only three days were required. This is because the competences that are beginning to be required today, and that will increase in the near future, are more behavioural in nature. We talk about teamwork, communication and other highly technical ones, such as the capabilities in the science of data analysis. Amy Wright, Head of Talent at IBM said in an interview that „Reskilling for technical skills is typically driven by structured education with a defined objective, a clear start and end,[...] building behavioural skills takes more time and is more complex“ (Al-Jazeera, 2019).
This approach already matches the ongoing trend in education since the 20th century to develop skills and knowledge into a more holistic concept of competences. Approaches have already been established in education dialogue in most EU countries as well as European Union and Council of Europe, but are still not completely installed in the business field. This shift from skills to competences brings on board behavioral skills as attitudes and goes as far as including values as a central part of it (OECD 2019). We see this transformation also fitting the shift in the competences demanded towards these “new” dimensions.
From 2018 to 2020, the European Commission launched its Digital Education Action Plan (European Comission, 2020), for which they are soon releasing a renewed action plan. This action plan shapes a new skills agenda for adult education and presents measures to help Member States and education and training institutions to reap the opportunities and meet the challenges presented by the digital age, divided in making better use of technology, developing digital competences and improving data analysis. In the same form, the European Commission launched in 2020 a framework for personal, social and learning to learn competences, LifeComp (Sala et al., 2020). This framework also connects with transversal competences required for digital citizenship. The European institutions are making a clear statement about which they consider the fundamental competences to adapt to a changing world and the shift from knowledge to transversal and values.Taking into account the changes that digital transformation is causing in organisations and institutions of all kinds, these “behavioural skills”, such as the ability to work well in teams, communication, creativity, and empathy, are best developed through experience rather than through structured learning programmes such as short-term seminars and written modules. In other words, the focus goes to the attitude and value components of the competence.
It seems curious that the employment and education fields remark how “we have to train ourselves in new skills”. Those competences that are required are tremendously human, each time more “transversal”, even considered basic to the person instead of specific to the role, and far from new. It seems more about bringing these competences out than learning or creating them. Hence, the process seems closer to becoming more “technologically” human than gaining “new” competences.
How Clear is this Shortage of Competences and its Requirements?
European workers have a clear understanding of their needs to continue their lifelong learning processes. They also show interest in improving and acquiring new competences. This interest doesn’t translate into practice in the same way across countries and fields, in many cases workers do not have the time, resources or support from employers to engage in training. Still, an average of one out of twelve EU residents are using online courses in a regular basis, which shows another layer of how digital education is supporting continuous development of competences becoming more accessible.
When advising a company on its transformation process or delivering training for new entrepreneurs, many times questions generalise the process of acquiring these competences. The focus is on specific training in technical-type competences and experiences, and the aim is to follow the same process for these new needs. Technical competences are essential, obviously, but they aren’t the core of this transition, nor is the traditional form of competence acquisition with a focus on knowledge and skill the recommended approach to follow.
A technological revolution involves technology, but it must also be understood that, in this phase of technological transformation, a new role for people must be addressed. Every time a robot, an expert artificial intelligence system or an automatism replaces a human worker in a certain process, a new scenario of relations between technology and humanity is born. Hence, employers who are clear about that vision ask with increasing emphasis from their new workers for these so-called soft or basic skills (McKinsey 2018). They speak of communication, ethics and creative competences (World Economic Forum 2018), processes that transform also the concept of the worker herself. The traditional expert – generalist linear spectrum grows a third dimension.
Analytical thinking and innovation;Complex problem-solving; Critical thinking and analysis; Active learning and learning strategies ;Creativity, originality and initiative;Attention to detail, trustworthiness;Emotional intelligence; Reasoning, problem-solving and ideation; Leadership and social influence;Coordination andtime management;
Manual dexterity, endurance precision; Memory, verbal, auditory & spatial abilities; Management of financial, material resources; Technology installation & maintenance;Reading, writing, math & active listening;Management of personnel quality control and safety awareness;Coordination and time management;Visual, auditoryand speech abilities;Technology use, monitoring & control;
Analytical thinking and innovation; Active learning and learning strategies;Creativity, originality and initiative;Technology design and programming;Critical thinking and analysis;Complex problem-solving;Leadership and social influence;Emotional intelligence; Reasoning, problem-solving and ideation; Systems analysis and evaluation;
Source: World Economic Forum (2018). The Future of Jobs Report 2018
Transversal Competences and Human Agency
With technology and the way of doing things constantly shifting, new tools, new languages and new forms of interaction with technology, the worker requires a lifelong and self-directed learning attitude supported by competences as curiosity and a level of meta-cognition that gives her the space to think about her thinking and learn about her learning.
As we write this text, technology is evolving in many directions. Artificial intelligence research laboratory, Open AI, has released the third version of their programming language model, GPT-3 (Open AI, 2020), This version has been trained over a hundred times more than its predecessor, over 175 billion parameters. It has been released in a closed beta, because “new AI capabilities, including fake text generator may be too dangerous to release“. In less than 18 months since the release of the previous version, experts in this technology need to relearn and understand how to communicate and work with it.
Solving the matter of effective upskilling is in the hands of those who set the strategic lines in economic, labour, social and political matters. To establish mechanisms so that we all understand it and are effective in the long term. Spain, much of Europe, all of Latin America and most of the world, are not foreseeing the impact that digitalisation, AI and effective education are going to have on the employment figures and quality.
It is feasible to think that advances in automation, technology and artificial intelligence not only displace jobs but also create new ones strategically. Hence, the challenge will be to train workers to fill new jobs. Some are taking it into account and others continue with the same methods, far from the problem that is approaching. If educational, vocational, university, academic and private sector plans are not implemented, if investment in this type of training is not rewarded, if tax reduction packages are not established so that companies can address the challenge, if comprehensive plans, public frames and provisions are not generated from the institutions, unemployment will become endemic, irreversible and with it efficiency, real productivity, and the economic level will decline.
Something that seems complex is not so complex. It is about putting on the table the requirements of the imminent society‘s economy, designing programmes to comply with a new labour model, stimulating its execution with active policies of all kinds and rewarding those who implement them. The „social“ European model with its education and innovation processes has the potential to balance these costs and earnings that companies and institutions will face.
Finally, it is necessary to speed up the deployment of technology, free from unemployment fears and with clear measures, helping the sectors that lead innovation to sit back and wait. We are not going to solve anything by regretting the drop in tourists, on whom 14% of employment depends in Spain, or the drop in car sales, on which 10% of the working population depends, as these are consequences of a needed shift.
The conversation is not about lists of jobs that are going to be destroyed by robots. This has always happened with any technological advance. The interesting topic is not that professionals are going to be replaced, but that new professionals, using technology to work, will continue in similar ways. Don‘t worry about a robot coming to take away your job. Worry that someone who gets along better than you with a robot will take away your job. That‘s what it is about. That is the urgent topic to understand. Those are the competences we require for this digital transformation.
Ramón Martínez is facilitator, learning designer and project coordinator for Democracy and Human Rights Education in Europe (DARE)network.
Al-Jazeera. 120 million workers need retraining as robots displace jobs. 06/09/2019
OECD (2019). Attitudes and values for 2030.
European Commission (2020) Digital Education Action Plan
GPT-3 release. Open AI (2020)
IBM (2019). Reskilling for Robots: AI and the future of jobs.
McKinsey (2018). Skill shift: Automation and the future of the workforce.
Sala, A., Punie, Y., Garkov, V. and Cabrera Giraldez, M., LifeComp: The European Framework for Personal, Social and Learning to Learn Key Competence, EUR 30246 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2020 https://doi.org/10.2760/302967
World Economic Forum (2018). The Future of Jobs Report 2018.
PWC (2018) Will robots really steal our jobs?
Education and Learning
This text was published in the frame of the project DIGIT-AL - Digital Transformation Adult Learning for Active Citizenship.
Pirker, G. and Martínez, R. (Ed.): Education and Learning (2020). Part of the reader: Smart City, Smart Teaching: Understanding Digital Transformation in Teaching and Learning. DARE Blue Lines, Democracy and Human Rights Education in Europe, Brussels 2020.