The gap between our skills and the digital needs of the labour market keeps growing

Opinion article by Cécile Jabaudon, Operational director @


You were undoubtedly asked this question when you were young: What do you want to become when you grow up? Astronaut! King! Or a policewoman or firefighter perhaps? Sweet little children who today exclaim wholeheartedly that they want to become an accountant, lawyer or driver, had best get their feet back on the ground. Automation is behind the wheel in the labour market of the future and we are all listening to the digitization manager. Are we doing what is needed to nurture the talents of today or to prepare for the work landscape of tomorrow? Computer says no.

According to a study by the McKinsey Global Institute, 50% of all tasks performed by humans at the work place can already be automated today. OECD figures from 2018 moreover show that 46% of all jobs have a 50% chance of disappearing or at least of changing substantially. What will that mean for the jobs of the future and the skills sought on the labour market?

Uneven pace

The response needs to start with education, but our curricula are lagging behind the facts and fail to keep pace with technological progress. For instance, the digital gap between the needs of the labour market and the knowledge of new workers keeps getting wider and wider.

Furthermore, digital skills are little stimulated in the first twelve years in primary and secondary school. The acceleration that occurs in higher education thus comes too late. This is due not only to the digital hiatuses in the curricula but also to instruction itself. For many teachers, the role of IT in the classroom is still limited to the use of a whiteboard or tablet. Only 19% of teachers in the French-speaking community who were questioned under TALIS, the OECD teaching and learning international survey, indicated that they used IT for tasks or classroom work. The average of other OECD countries that took part in the survey is 53%.

In addition, fewer than half (45%) had received training in using IT for teaching purposes. Only 20% of the teachers surveyed felt that they were sufficiently prepared after studies to use IT in the classroom. Flemish teachers also indicated that they need more training on the IT front. If IT is already rocket science for the teachers, how can they have the confidence and knowledge needed to stimulate the digital skills of students and maintain them in a sustainable manner?

Sustainable digital shift

Needless to say, the first step towards a sustainable digital shift in education must be taken in guiding and training our teachers. A second imperative requirement is to stimulate digital skills in all school subjects across the board because technology is ubiquitous. For instance, before you, as an entrepreneur, want to use artificial intelligence to boost your business, you have to grasp what this means so that you can set expectations and communicate them to a developer. This is the only way you can use technology as a tool to raise your job or company to a higher level.

This does not mean that everyone has to become a programmer all of a sudden. It is crucial nonetheless for new workers to have a basic understanding of the possibilities of the digital shift. Think of it as a language. Not everyone learns English in order to become an interpreter, but whoever wants to be part of his or her field of expertise and hold a conversation with stakeholders cannot do so without a smattering of English.

Finally, soft skills – skills that cannot be automated or copied – will weigh more and more when it comes to filling the job vacancies of the future. Soft skills not only include individual skills such as creativity, persuasiveness, and emotional intelligence but also more collective skills, like the sense of cooperation, the ability of risk sharing within a team or external self-awareness. The development of these human skills should therefore be given a more prominent place in the curricula of the future.

Never stop learning

Many companies, particularly young, dynamic start-ups, do not ask for a CV or letter of motivation any more, but are looking for people who are willing to learn and understand what a company stands for. Why are video CVs a new trend? Not because they prove that an applicant can work with an editing programme, but because the person shows that s/he can think out of the box, is open to new things and wants to develop his or her talents further. It is a good test of soft skills.

Furthermore, students should have a desire to keep on learning from an early age on – not only behind the school desks but also afterwards at the workplace. They have to learn how to learn. Their curiosity and eagerness to learn must be stimulated so as to see any new material they come into contact with as a source of knowledge that can be used to hone their talents and further their development. Moreover, innovations follow each other in such quick succession that schools cannot impart all the requisite knowledge and skills, and because of the rapid development of skills, it is not always easy to chart a career path. Graduates are on the eve of a career with a rucksack full of knowledge. But in the morning of the first day at work, a lot of that knowledge turns out to be obsolete or completely superfluous.

We learn by doing, and that is how we all grow in our position, develop experience, expertise, confidence and trust, and find out for ourselves which professional path we ultimately want to take. This process is still not stimulated sufficiently at the workplace. Colleagues learn how certain tasks are carried out and how to deal with specific clients, but intrinsic talent should be encouraged more.

Lifelong learning

Young people nowadays are setting their own rules on the labour market, more than ever before. They are self-taught but above all they want to grow and develop their talents in order to stand for something. Pleasing them with an annual training session is not enough. Two hours of training on top of a 38-hour workweek is not acceptable because they attach increasingly more importance to striking a balance between work and private life.

Lifelong learning is therefore the only and most sustainable path to self-development. It requires providing room in the work schedules to give workers an opportunity to learn ideally at least at fixed intervals on a weekly basis – not only in order to accommodate their desire to grow, but also to have their skills keep pace with the modern needs of the market. This won’t be achieved without the commitment of both employees and employers. Employers have a key-role to play here to guide and support their staff in the definition of new skills to be acquired in the company. Employers should understand that the development of their employees pays off quickly in the growth of their business.

Just as education must stimulate the digital skills of the talent of tomorrow in a sustainable manner, the employer must foster this development further at the workplace. This is the only way to close the gap between our skills and the digital needs of the labour market and strike an ideal balance between the added value of automation and unbridled human insight and talent.