At Davos, labor leaders and executives agree that policies and investments into skills training is the best way to prevent people from being left behind in the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution'

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henry davos 2019 panelWorld Economic ForumFrom left to right: KPMG global chairman Bill Thomas, ILO director-general Guy Ryder, UNI Global Union general secretary Christy Hoffman, and Insider, Inc. CEO Henry Blodget discuss workforce training for the future at the World Economic Forum's 2019 annual conference in Davos, Switzerland.World Economic Forum

  • Insider, Inc. CEO Henry Blodget hosted a panel at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos titled "Learning Today for Tomorrow's Jobs."
  • The panel comprised executives, labor leaders, and a renowned academic, who debated the extent of involvement for the public and private sectors in assisting workers through what WEF calls the "Fourth Industrial Revolution."
  • The panel found that the transformation of industries should inspire action, but not hopelessness.
  • All panel members agreed that now is the time to develop job education programs for existing employees and to further embrace alternatives to four-year university education.
  • This article is part of Business Insider's ongoing series on Better Capitalism.

The developed world is undergoing a period of rapid transformation yet again, and this means that workers, governments, and corporations are going to have to adapt so that they're not left behind.

World Economic Forum (WEF) founder Klaus Schwab thinks the scale and speed at which changes like artificial intelligence-powered automation are taking place warrants the label of the "Fourth Industrial Revolution."

While it's easy for an elite class to be hopeful around changes that will likely make their businesses more efficient and productive, it's upsetting for the average worker to constantly hear that robots will be replacing millions of jobs.

Some of this fear is based on how much is unknown: There are plenty of estimates tossed around, but the bottom line is no one knows for certain which jobs will be obsolete in 10 years, and which new ones will emerge.

After surveying 33,000 people around the world for its latest annual trust survey, the global communications firm Edelman found that 59% of employees worry about not having the training and skills necessary for a well-paying job and 55% worry automation and other tech will make their job obsolete.

In the hopes of finding some solutions to alleviate these fears, Henry Blodget, the cofounder and CEO of Business Insider's parent company Insider, Inc., had a discussion with top labor leaders, executives, and a renowned academic at WEF's annual conference in Davos, Switzerland.

Blodget's panel, "Learning Today for Tomorrow's Jobs" included:

  • Adam Grant, bestselling author and professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania
  • Christy Hoffman, general secretary of the Switzerland-based global union federation UNI Global Union
  • Julie Gebauer, head of human capital and benefits at the United Kingdom-based insurance brokerage and consulting firm Willis Towers Watson
  • Bill Thomas, global chairman of the Netherlands-based professional services company KPMG
  • Guy Ryder, director-general of the United Nations agency the International Labour Organization (ILO)
They debated the means of implementation and the extent of responsibilities of the public and private sectors, as well as the workers themselves, but all panel members agreed that to thrive in this global shift, job training must be a lifetime commitment, and that the responsibility should not be solely placed on the worker.

It's a time for action, the panel agreed, not giving up."We've seen shifts like this before; we've gotten through them," Blodget said.

We've collected highlights from the discussion, to find out how to get through this current shift.

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Wharton professor Adam Grant said we should be 'worried but not panicked,' and our response should be taking internal training more seriously.

Wharton professor Adam Grant said we should be 'worried but not panicked,' and our  response should be taking internal training more seriously.

Grant said history is repeating itself, in terms of how jobs will be replaced and new ones created. For him, a hypothetical world where everyone gets a college degree before entering the workforce would not lead to a solution. While he recognizes the value of a thorough education as a foundation for particular careers — and he is not saying we replace it for everyone — the current shift requires a new focus on skills.

He said a discussion with eyeglasses company Warby Parker showed him how to do it well. When the chief technology officer had a difficult time attracting a software engineer due to a crowded job market with big tech companies, his assistant said she could figure out a solution to a coding challenge he was facing. He then decided they would train his assistant to fill that engineer role. Grant said the CTO has done another internal retraining since then, due to the success of the first one.

"If I were running a company, the first thing I would do is I'd make a list of all the skills that I can't fill from the outside," Grant said. "I'd create a set of job descriptions, and then some training programs internally. And I'd let my own employees sign up to teach them as well as to take them, so that I don't have to move linearly through one ladder but I can actually rotate."

UNI Global Union general secretary Christy Hoffman said we need tripartite solutions involving unions, business, and governments.

UNI Global Union general secretary Christy Hoffman said we need tripartite solutions involving unions, business, and governments.

Hoffman's organization represents 20 million workers in the service industry, and she said that while some corporations have recognized the need for internal retraining, there are simply some employees who are not on paths that will get them necessary training and will therefore be left behind.

"There will be people who are displaced," she said, and so solutions determined through the cooperation of unions with policymakers and employers "make sure that as people navigate the change, there is support for appropriate reskilling."

She acknowledged the weak state of unions in the US, but asserted that collective bargaining needs to play a strong role in negotiating the terms of what employees need to be trained in, and how they will be trained.

ILO director-general Guy Ryder said there needs to be 'an entitlement to lifelong learning.'

ILO director-general Guy Ryder said there needs to be 'an entitlement to lifelong learning.'

In a new report, the ILO calls for "recognition of a universal entitlement to lifelong learning and the establishment of an effective lifelong learning system" — that is, nations should recognize that the way the workforce is evolving in the developed world, learning cannot end after high school or college.

It's time, Ryder said, to focus on what works rather than getting lost in statistical estimates about lost jobs, or behaving as if there will be no work left in the near future.

For him, that means, among other things, nations and corporations seriously considering new apprenticeship programs, which can be modeled on successful ones like those in Switzerland and Germany, which on average yield returns on investment.

In Switzerland, for example, a teenager can enroll in three- or four-year apprenticeships while simultaneously completing their schooling, and end up with a nationally recognized, portable certification and a job from their sponsor. For this to work in another country, the framework has to be established by the government, and companies must agree to regulations and standards.

It works," he said. "And it works very, very well."

Willis Towers Watson's head of human capital and benefits Julie Gebauer said it's important to realize there are skills that can't be automated.

Willis Towers Watson's head of human capital and benefits Julie Gebauer said it's important to realize there are skills that can't be automated.

Gebauer said that while automation has become the central talking point of this massive shift, there is "also a whole set of human skills that are going to be incredibly important for the future. Interpersonal skills, the ability to interact with clients, customers, patients. Also, global skills — being able to operate virtually with people from all different cultures."

She also noted that it's worth remembering that these changes don't happen in a vacuum, and that customers are part of the equation, as well. With service jobs like home health aides, for example, the human element is as important as the technical performance.

Gebauer said she believed that the onus should be placed on employers for providing proper training to maintain employee retention.

KPMG global chairman Bill Thomas said that companies need to see investing in internal training programs as a competitive advantage.

KPMG global chairman Bill Thomas said that companies need to see investing in internal training programs as a competitive advantage.

Thomas said that 25 years ago, nearly all of its job applicants would be accounting majors, but today there's less than half.

"And if you think about the evolution of where our workforce is going, whether that is the needs of our clients, whether that is the recognition that artificial intelligence, some of the disruption from technology that that's going to have on our workforce — the truth of the matter is I'm not going to wait for a government response," he said.

"I have an incredible team that knows our organization, they know our values, they know what we stand for, they know what we care about, and the investment that we can make in reskilling them ... pales in comparison to starting from scratch on the culture that you lose."

He said his workforce of 225,000 is 75% millennials, and that KPMG has adapted, for the better, to that sector's demand for an integration of purpose and diversity initiatives. He considers the increased availability of internal training as integral to the requirements for a successful company going into the future. It will also serve to make KPMG more attractive than its competitors.

You can watch the full panel discussion below:

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