Digital transformation is changing the future of work and skills

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Reflections on Digital Economy and Society Discussion Series #1

“How is digital transformation changing the future of work and skills?”

This was the question discussed by the invited expert panel at the inaugural Digital Economy and Society Discussion Series, which was held at the University of Edinburgh.

The backdrop of the event was the realization that digitalization is rapidly transforming the quality, character, and accessibility of learning and work around the world. Opportunities emerge alongside inequalities and challenges. Some of these challenges will disproportionally affect the already marginalized or underserved populations, further widening a stark global and local digital divide.

In this public panel discussion event, leading experts from the University of Edinburgh and the United Nations offered insights about current and possible future transformations in the fields of employment and education.

The two-sided effects of digital work

“Digitalization of the labour market is changing the skills composition of occupations on jobs,” said Zulum Avila, Specialist on Employment Strategies in the Digital Economy at the International Labour Organization, when asked about current and future trends.

She added that, as tasks are being automated, digital technology is also helping to improve productivity and improve the capacities of workers to use this new digital tools. More than that, digitalization and new forms of online work can help drive forward the economic inclusion of people, such as those with disabilities.

At the same time, how work is being organized in a global digital economy has also introduced new challenges for workers, said Avila. These challenges include those faced by workers on digital labour platforms, such as barriers to workers’ collective representation, insecure working conditions, as well as social and health related pressures such as isolation and negative mental health impacts.

The meaning of work and skills is changing

For Karen Gregory, a digital sociologist and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, a key question in the understanding of current and future transformations is a basic one ye intriguing one: “what is work for people?” She added: “And how are people making technologies work for them? How are they putting themselves back to work or keeping themselves alive through new forms of labour, much of it outside regulation?”

In many ways, this highlights that the very essence of what work is, and what it means for workers, is fundamentally changing. Gregory referred to cases of people who get paid for sleeping in front of a camera online through the platform Twitch, as a new form of work that may have been unimaginable in the past.

AI demands new skills and undermines others

The building of digital skills throughout people’s lives is widely seen as a key ingredient for a more inclusive and fair digital economy. But what the right digital skills are, and how we should talk about them, is contested.

Jen Ross, Senior Lecturer in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh, critiqued what she saw as a “skills fetish” that has separated the skills from the people and communities that hold them, as some kind of “disembodied attributes” rather than human capabilities. This is particularly important in relation to digitalization, which may change the kinds of skills that people hold and must hold to succeed in the labour market.

AI also threatens some skills. For example, universities such as Edinburgh’s are instructing students to not use tools such as Chat GPT all too easily, partly because they believe an over-reliance on AI tools reduces students’ opportunity to practice and develop key skills, such as critical thinking, analysis, or evaluation. Skills are at risk of becoming outsourced.

The highs and lows of digital skills

One challenge of digital transformation in the world’s economies is that it increases the demand for both low- and high-skill work, with consequences for remuneration and working conditions.

In this regard, Andreas Hackl, a social anthropologist and co-director of the DES Cluster at the Edinburgh Futures Institute, noted a coexistence of two simultaneous trends: first, there is a growing demand for highly skilled work, including for experts who know how AI is built and how it works, such as people who are software programmers and those who may be involved in the production of these services and technologies.

At the same time, AI and other digital tools need a wide range of other work to survive and thrive. This includes the people doing low-skilled work, such as those who are training AI models through basic repetitive human inputs, such as image annotation work or “clickwork”. This has been a prominent solution promoted by aid organizations and social enterprises to generate digital livelihoods among refugees.

This was mirrored by Zulum Avila, who said that “there are many low skill workers, including refugees that are feeding artificial intelligence with basic data.” She added, however, that a decade ago, the opportunities to do microwork or annotation work where entry levels skills and very easy tasks, but this is changing and humans have much to teach machines. As for highly skilled work, Avila highlighted cybersecurity as a key skill that is in high demand and sought-after by companies and governments.

Digital economies as a source of empowerment and disempowerment

One of the key questions that resonated strongly during the event was whether digital work and skills are empowering for marginalized groups, including refugees, or disempowering – or both.

The ILO has been supporting the integration of refugees into digital jobs and sees an opportunity. But it can be difficult to adapt to online work for people without prior experience in digital skills or related fields of work. This includes know-how about effective bidding for jobs, soft skills and communication skills, including in English, or knowledge about how to successfully pitch a proposal.

“A lot of support is needed in developing all these skills, especially for working online”, said Zulum Avila of the ILO, adding that online platform work provides a totally different ecosystem that also requires different soft skills.

In all of this, it is clear that while a minority of the world’s population benefits from digital transformation, a large number of people are at risk of being left behind. “It’s very important to not forget how many people in the world are actually not even online and cannot afford a smartphone”, said Andreas Hackl.

Another concern voiced at the event reflected the problematic environmental impact of some digital technologies. “We are facing an environmental collapse,” said Karen Gregory, adding: “You know part of the world is dependent on something that is running the water of the world down, and the energy involved in this is very unsustainable. Yet there are days, I wake up, and I think, what are we doing?”

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

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