• The pandemic has widened the skills gap because of accelerating digitalizations.

• Upskilling must happen inclusively and globally to ensure an equitable recovery.

• Private organizations with a global footprint could play a key role in skills training.

In ancient times, power in society used to rest with one individual, or an elite who owned more wealth. At some point, the Athenian Greeks started asking themselves who should rule and how that would work best. The reformer Cleisthenes introduced a new, more inclusive system, where the people (demos) could rule (kratos): Democracy was born.

Currently, we know that democratic countries – those which involve and give voice to each of their citizens and protect human rights – enjoy more equal societies, and are also the wealthiest.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the foundations of this equality. Oxfam report that the global health crisis has inflicted a greater economic toll on the poor, women, or marginalized racial and ethnic groups. One of the reasons is that those groups worked in low-pay sectors such as tourism or retail; the ones most brutally hit by the pandemic. Inequality has grown.

There is a high risk that only those who are part of a wealthy elite, with access to the best education, will continue to have power. By accelerating digitalization, the COVID-19 pandemic has widened the skills gap. New emerging jobs require unique abilities, and even those currently working will need to upskill. According to the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs 2020 report, 94% of business leaders report they expect employees to pick up new skills on the job, a sharp uptake from 65% in 2018. But how? A significant majority does not have the opportunity to learn new abilities or find a job in this new scenario.

It is time that we ask ourselves certain questions. How can all citizens in the post-pandemic world actively participate in our economy? How can we ensure that we hear all voices? How can we approach upskilling inclusively and globally?

New data brings new answers. The study Upskilling for a Post-Pandemic Economy from Accenture and Amazon showed us the potential impact of skills training on unlocking new and higher-income careers. With some training and acquisition of new skills, one in three working Americans – including 33 million low-income workers – has the potential to access higher-income occupations that are forecasted to grow in the future. Technical skills are twice as likely to be associated with high-income occupations.

If individuals could acquire the necessary skills, they would be able to more fully participate in the post-pandemic economy. They could get a new job, use their talents to create value for others, while earning money. Knowledge enables citizens to participate in the economy. This is the democratization of skills.

94% of business leaders expect employees to pick up new skills needed for the future
94% of business leaders expect employees to pick up new skills needed for the future
Image: World Economic Forum

Why do we need to democratize access to new skills?

  • Citizens across the globe would be more included. Getting access to the skills demanded by the market brings us many advantages. We can get personally invested and own our job, by seeking out what we are enthusiastic about in life and pursuing it from a digital angle. For example, if I want to open a shop to sell my handmade products, I should learn digital marketing skills and the use of social media. If I am passionate about finance, new skills can help me be part of the fintech industry. Cloud computing is growing massively, and new related roles linked to engineering, sales and HR are emerging.
  • Global access to skills would distribute power more equally by making knowledge readily available. It would not only be in the hands of a privileged group who can afford to pay for specialized training. This inclusion in the digital economy is essential for social cohesion.
  • The economy can recover from the pandemic and grow. Just as democracy helps produce faster economic growth, the democratization of skills would result in more wealth. The pandemic has accelerated digitalization, and technology enables the rest of business to offer new services. There is a shortage of talent in technical areas, and the democratization of skills can close the digital gap. The more people working, the higher purchasing power of the society, which can make use of the new digital experiences.
  • We can only solve global problems with diverse talent. Complex issues need new ideas from different perspectives. Access to more diverse talent is critical for the digital economy.

The digital post-COVID world can be more democratic. It is possible to join the global economy via the internet. We can exchange services or share expertise from any place. However, this is only possible if we have the skills to make that transition possible. The same as with democracy, citizens can only actively participate if a robust system enables the opportunity.

How could we ensure that individuals coming from low-income, at-risk jobs can switch to tech careers?

Private organizations with a global footprint play a significant role. There are already initiatives in place. Amazon has now developed a plan to provide free cloud computing skills training to 29 million people globally by 2025, expanding existing programmes and piloting new ones to meet emerging training needs. There are already many success stories, such as the one of this fitness instructor who pivoted to a tech role, that show us how free training is helping individuals reimagine their careers.

It is our time to stop and think about how we can help upskill the global workforce to close the inequality gap. It is the time of skills democracy.