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How COVID-19 can change work for the better - the World Economic Forum's Saadia Zahidi on the Jobs Reset Summit

Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director, World Economic Forum, speaking in  the Press Conference: How to Enable Social Mobility at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2020 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, 20 January. Congress Centre - in Press Conference Room  Copyright by World Economic Forum/Jakob Polacsek

Saadia Zahidi: COVID-19 has disrupted the working lives of billions around the world. Image: REUTERS/Eva Plevier

Saadia Zahidi
Managing Director, World Economic Forum
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Education, Gender and Work

This article is part of: The Jobs Reset Summit

This Q&A is an edited version of an interview with Saadia Zahidi, the World Economic Forum's Managing Director and Head of the Centre for the New Economy and Society, which took place ahead of the Jobs Reset Summit.

It features on The Great Reset podcast - subscribe here for daily coverage throughout the Summit.


What is the Jobs Reset Summit? And why are you holding it now?

In the last few years, we've seen rising inequality, growing social discord and the growing threat of technology to jobs. At the same time, there has been hope around how that very same technology can provide better solutions to education, new types of jobs - and very precise approaches to providing social safety nets and the kind of data we need to understand the impact of technology on different parts of society.

So, there are both positives and negatives when it comes to the trends that have been occurring in the last few years. The pandemic has made it very clear where our social contracts are broken and which parts of society need more help and support to ensure that social mobility is restored.

We're going to need a concerted effort to come out of this recession and we have an opportunity to build a new economy. That's what this summit is all about. It's leveraging this crisis, this moment and ensuring that we use it as the opportunity that it is and build back better.

Have you read?

The four days of the summit each follow a different theme. Could you explain a little more about these?

We start the first day of the summit by focusing on economic growth, revival and transformation. So, what actually needs to be done to restore growth and not just any growth, but the kind we want, that will be environmentally compatible and socially inclusive.

The second day is all about work, wages and job creation. So, as we do return to growth, how do we ensure that people have high-quality work and there are appropriate standards for all parts of the workforce. Low-skilled work as well as high-skilled work. And how do we ensure that we create the new kinds of jobs that we need? Whether in the care sector or in the green sector or in I.T. [we need to] invest in a concerted way towards job creation.

The third day is around education, skills and lifelong learning. Ensuring that people have the right kind of human capital investment, so that they have the skills and training to be able to leverage their full potential.

And then finally, day four is all about equity, inclusion and social justice. So, it's ensuring that all parts of society benefit from that new kind of growth, from those new kinds of jobs and education. And not just have that be reserved for a few.

What kind of results would you like to see come out of the summit?

We are aiming to answer some of the big questions. What kinds of investments are needed? What should be the new metrics for the new economy? What are the specific types of the jobs of tomorrow? What are the mechanisms of creating a global social protection fund? What are the ways in which online learning can become, in fact, the new form of learning? What are the ways in which we can embed racial justice, gender equality, LGBTI inclusion and include people of all abilities?

Those are the big questions - what's the new vision, the new standards in these areas? And then the second element is actually driving forward action on some of these areas.

We expect the first day to build alignment around a new 'dashboard for the new economy'. So the new targets beyond growth that focus on people and planet and institutions beyond simply prosperity. What would that dashboard look like? We're releasing that dashboard and building a coalition around it.

On the second day, we expect an announcement around social protection and building a coalition for the public sector and the private sector to come together around a minimum social protection floor.

On the third day, we expect a coalition of companies from multiple industries to come together and agree to, not only, new standards for the future of work, but also announce a number of commitments around reskilling and upskilling. Similarly, we expect a number of countries to make announcements as well around how they will be reskilling and upskilling their workforce and not just that but also redeploying them into future jobs.

On day four, we are planning to have announcements from countries that are launching new 'Closing the gender gap accelerators'. And at the same time, we're expecting a number of companies to come together and announce work they will be taking forward on racial justice in the workplace.

What's the difference between reskilling and upskilling?

Reskilling is traditionally focused on those that will require a very substantial change in the set of skills that they have. And, usually, reskilling goes along with redeployment into a new role or re-employment into a whole different industry or company.

Upskilling usually happens on the job. So, you remain within your role, but it is going through a major change in terms of the skills that are required. And you're upskilled within that role itself.

How many of us will require upskilling and reskilling?

The numbers are very large. What hasn't changed is the pace with which technology is impacting jobs. We found that by 2025, if you look at today's tasks, humans and machines will be at par in terms of how those tasks are being divided. Now, that basically means that millions of jobs will be fully lost, but still more than that will be gained.

When it comes to the reskilling and upskilling number, most companies say that about half of their employees will need reskilling and upskilling. For some, that pathway will lead to displacement and being moved into a different role. And for some, that will be upskilling within the role that they're in. But overall, we're talking about very large numbers that will face that change.

And at the core of every single job - so whether you'd require reskilling or upskilling or not - there is the expectation that at least 40% of the core skills are going to change. Now, that is a massive number for most of us to absorb. It basically means that five years from now, roughly half of what we're doing is going to look different in terms of the tasks that we do day-to-day. That is a pretty big change for everyone to absorb.

What have been the main impacts of COVID-19 on the world of work?

We know for a fact that the pace of technology adoption is not only going to continue unabated in the pandemic recession, but if anything, that pace of technology adoption is going up. Those of us who are in the white-collar workforce, working from home, see that change happening. Not just technology that allows people to work from home, but technology that actually quite fundamentally changes the nature of the tasks in most jobs.

The combination of technology adoption, along with this COVID-19 recession, is going to create essentially a double disruption scenario for most workers. If in the past there were concerns about technology displacing them, we've now got not just technology, but also a recession displacing them. And so that's another key fact about the current state of the economy in the workplace.

What is still fairly positive, though, is that the number of jobs expected to be created through the integration of technology still remains higher than the number of jobs that will be displaced. But that job creation rate has gone significantly down compared to two years ago. It's not surprising in the middle of a recession that we're not expecting to create as many jobs as we did before. It just simply remains an optimistic scenario overall compared to the rate of job destruction.

But, of course, it depends on the choices we make today. It depends on the kinds of investments governments make today - and the investments workers make in terms of their own time. And it depends on the choices that business leaders make when it comes to retaining and protecting jobs versus shorter-term decisions that are more focused on quarterly results.


What is the World Economic Forum’s Jobs Reset Summit?

Could I ask you about equity and inclusion? The executive director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said: "There is a danger that women are the ones who are likely to opt to work from home, and offices may just end up being the places where men go to." Will this be discussed on day four and should it concern us?

I think there are two different types of effects going on. There's the one that UN Women is pointing out, which is this sort of 'double shift' that women are taking on both in the workplace and because they're also taking on the majority of the care responsibilities in the household.

But what's happened now is a sort of double-double shift, and that basically means a lot more stress and extra hours in the workplace - whether those women are frontline essential workers or in white-collar roles - because of the current pressures in the economy, there is that sort of extra stretch of hours in the workplace.

But in addition to that, there are increased care responsibilities in the home. Because children are, in some cases, not going to school, there is more work to be done in the home. The home has basically become the new workplace, and so there's much more to be done. As result, there's that 'double-double shift'.

But there's another trend which relates to the future of work and what that means for gender equality, the types of roles that will be growing in the future. A very large majority of those roles happen to be the ones that don't have a strong pipeline of women going into them.

So, for example, roles that require coding and data science skills, roles that require artificial-intelligence-related skills, these are all roles that we know will be growing in the future. And they also happen to have very few pipelines of women going in.

This is a dual adjustment that we have to ensure is made to not lose out on the current workforce and not retract the gains that have happened in terms of women's integration into the labour market, but also plan for the future. And, in fact, one of the things we'll be doing on day four is exactly related to this - hardwiring gender parity into the future of work.

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