April 05, 2018
Latin America’s new skills mandate: Are we ready to act?
By: Armen Ovanessoff

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been bombarded by headlines about how intelligent technologies will create or destroy (depending on your opinion) millions of jobs over the coming decades. The truth is that the future job scenario is not something that will happen to us. It will be the consequence of the explicit choices and decisions made by business leaders, policy makers and civil society leaders today. We are not passive bystanders to these economic transformations. The future depends on our cold, hard investment decisions. Investments in skill-building and training. Investments in technologies. Investments in designing appropriate rules and safeguards.

That responsibility is all the more acute when the stakes are high, as in Latin America. In global reports, Latin America consistently emerges as the region suffering from the most acute skills gaps. The latest study by Manpower showed that more than a quarter of firms in the region have difficulty finding workers with the right qualifications. Argentina is worst hit, with 59 percent struggling to find workers with the appropriate skills.

And that’s just the starting point. Consider what happens if interventions are not fast or deep enough. Accenture’s research shows that about 30 percent of the region’s formal workers spend most of their time doing routine work tasks; that is, tasks that are vulnerable to automation. These workers need urgent reskilling and upskilling to prepare them for modified or new roles relevant to the future work environment. Without decisive action, displaced workers could end up in informal work, further depressing wage rates at the low end of the income ladder and threatening the precious progress Latin America has made in reducing informality and inequality.

So, how are we responding? More than 60% of the C-level executives we surveyed in Brazil told us that growing skill gaps are their top workplace issue. So lack of awareness is not the problem. But only 1% of respondents say they are planning significant increases to their training and skill-building investments in the next three years. That’s a problem. (To be fair to the Brazilian respondents, the global average was 3 percent. So, it’s a poor show all round.)

Of course, money is never a magic solution on its own, but it can indicate how seriously a problem is being taken.

The good news is that there is momentum for change. We are seeing important changes in teaching approaches and technologies that support skills acquisition and hold promise to address the challenges ahead. Moreover, there is greater consensus than ever on the need for action, and for new initiatives across sectors and countries. Indeed, with the G20 Presidency in Argentina this year, this issue is receiving priority attention.

Perhaps the cries about robots taking over have awakened new energy. If so, let’s harness that momentum and turn it to constructive use.

See Armen’s interview on work and skills in Latin America during the World Economic Forum Latin America Meeting

Read Armen’s article with Accenture’s Latin America CEO on the World Economic Forum’s Agenda website

Read our report on “Building Latin America’s Skills for the Age of Intelligent Machines”

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