• The COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of automation have increased the significance of the new digital economy, impacting both the supply of and demand for jobs globally.
  • Governments, businesses and higher education institutions must co-operate to build more equality into the workforce as it adapts to suit the new digital economy.
  • Many organisations are partnering on technology-based solutions and moving from ideas to action to train and upskill employees in this new era.

The combined forces of automation and the pandemic have profoundly reshaped the labour market, displacing millions of workers, disrupting local economies, and worsening social inequities worldwide.

Today’s workplace requires modern skills and workers are looking for well-paying careers with mobility and remote work potential. Capacity for 149 million new digital jobs is expected globally by 2025 and technology is creating those opportunities. But students and workers need access to learning and career pathways to make the transition.

Institutional collaboration will be critical to addressing the scale of the unemployment and skills challenge. Higher education institutions, businesses and government agencies are aligning efforts to build a more equitable and sustainable workforce amid rapid transformation.

Here are four concrete partnership examples that offer blueprints for other institutions to follow as they prepare for a digital future:

1) Creating pathways to future jobs through skills training

Unemployment affected many sectors in Barbados during the pandemic, including the tourism and service industries. The fallout had an outsized impact on women, who represent roughly 62% of employment in the accommodation and food sectors. It also came at a time when the country was already battling the impact of natural disasters and climate change.

"Multi-stakeholder coalitions like these can improve workforce development outcomes by ensuring citizens have support during every step of their journey"

—Jeff Maggioncalda, Coursera

The Government of Barbados’ National Transformation Initiative (NTI) launched a nationwide initiative in May 2021 to upskill and reskill 120,000 impacted workers in high-growth local industries like tourism and blue and green economies. This effort, supported by Prime Minister Mia Mottley, includes 20,000 scholarships for Barbadian women, particularly those without a degree, to prepare for entry-level digital jobs in fields such as IT support, data analytics and project management.

NTI formed a coalition of over 10 academic and workforce institutions - including the nation’s community college system, Vocational Training Board, and the Samuel Jackman Prescod Institute of Technology - to recruit programme participants, offer foundational learning pathways and provide support services. Workforce leaders like the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and Small Business Association will connect learners with local hiring opportunities.

Multi-stakeholder coalitions like these can improve workforce development outcomes by ensuring citizens have support during every step of their journey – from recruitment and training completion, to job placement.

2) Upgrading the higher education system to improve youth employability

To lower student drop-out rates and improve graduate employability in a challenging labour market, Morocco upgraded its national higher education system in September 2021, transitioning public universities from a three-year degree to a four-year Bachelor’s model.

The plans involve offering undergraduate students an initial “foundation year” based on a hybrid, skills-first curriculum. The initiative, currently involving more than 15 universities including L’Université Hassan II de Casablanca, aims to support roughly 350,000 students in the next four years.

Faculty will integrate online courses to help students develop communication skills, learning techniques, and other human skills intended to foster university success and degree completion. The programme will also include courses about emerging digital and work-readiness skills that are highly transferable across various jobs, including statistics, computer programming, and data analytics.

Aligning degrees to the common four-year model could open up opportunities for cross-country academic collaborations, facilitate international mobility for Moroccan students, and make local universities more attractive to foreign students.

"Investment in SMEs will play an important role in economic recovery as countries look for ways to employ citizens and generate growth within their local communities."

—Jeff Maggioncalda, Coursera

3) Establishing a learning ecosystem with universities and NGOs to promote local business growth

Small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurs were hit hard during the pandemic. Investment in these businesses will play an important role in economic recovery as countries look for ways to employ citizens and generate growth within their local communities.

Before the pandemic, the University of Virginia launched the Africa Scholarship Cohort in partnership with nonprofit, Distance Education for Africa (DeAfrica), and Coursera to improve gender equity and economic impact by offering scholarships to over 34,000 learners across 54 nations in Africa. In 2020, the programme expanded to offer courses from the University of London and new literature with business case studies written by scholarship recipients.

DeAfrica provides on-the-ground support and mentorship through local events and WhatsApp groups, and hosts graduation ceremonies for students. Due in part to this support, over 72% of learners completed their Coursera courses.

Access to cutting-edge business education and mentorship from local business owners are two key forms of investment typically afforded to MBA students. By involving multiple stakeholders, the University of Virginia is able to replicate that model, helping local SMEs and employers like Cellulant and Kenya Airways upskill their employees and grow their businesses.

Infographic about changing core skills for workers
Employers need to work with governments and learning bodies to help worker's develop new skills for the digital economy.
Image: Future of Jobs Report 2020, World Economic Forum

4) Expanding digital inclusion to advance workforce development for underserved populations

The California State Library has granted $4.36 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to expand workforce development efforts for unemployed and underemployed Californians. It targeted those most impacted by the pandemic—particularly women, people of colour, youth, and those without a college degree.

The State Library, which accounts for 1,130 libraries and receives more than 113 million virtual visits monthly, is providing services like free high-speed internet and device access, in-home technical support for seniors, in-person workshops, and a free training initiative called CAreer Pathways with the Pacific Library Partnership (PLP).

It has partnered with eight online education providers to offer Californians diverse learning options, including entry-level credentials from California-based companies like Google and Meta that prepare workers for digital jobs. Many of these entry-level certificates have ACE Credit Recommendations, so learners are eligible to receive college credit upon completion. Learners can also apply for open jobs through a hiring consortium of over 150 employers including Target, Infosys, and Google.

Broadband connectivity paired with online job training can help institutions maximize the impact of their digital inclusion initiatives, while enabling workers to unlock their full economic potential.

"Leading institutions are using partnerships and technology to move from ideas to action and deliver impact at unprecedented speed and scale."

—Jeff Maggioncalda, Coursera

The pandemic will have a lasting impact on our jobs, our communities, and our economies. We must prepare for our digital future. Leading institutions are using partnerships and technology to move from ideas to action and deliver impact at unprecedented speed and scale. ​​It is the responsibility of institutions to come together and recognize this incredible opportunity to rebuild a more just world.