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Eight ways Europe can stay attractive for future talent

Leaders from across Europe share their thoughts on how organizations can prepare for and adapt to a changing labor market.

Our most recent Attractiveness survey  revealed that a shortage of skills in the labor market is damaging the growth prospects of companies and Europe’s economy. Policy-makers, companies, educational institutions and individuals must work together to plot a course that will deliver the talent for tomorrow. We talked to eight business leaders about the role we all have to play in upskilling and reskilling Europe’s workforce.

1. Adapt to fast-changing labor markets

Viewpoint from Mark Pearson, Deputy Director of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, OECD

The nature and intensity of the skills required by firms can vary substantially between countries, depending on each economy’s productive structure or technological advancement.

On average, across the OECD countries analyzed by the Skills for Jobs Database, more than 5 in 10 jobs that are hard to fill are found in high-skill occupations. The most acute shortages in OECD countries are in the “knowledge of computers and electronics” category.

These jobs range from managerial positions to highly skilled professionals in the health care, teaching or ICT sectors. Fewer than 1 in 10 jobs where skills are scarce across the OECD are found in low-skill occupations.

The most acute shortages in OECD countries are in knowledge of computers and electronics.

In most countries, there are too few workers expert enough in computer hardware and software, programming and applications to meet demand from firms.

But the next biggest shortage, which is nearly as great, is in the “judgment and decision-making skills and communication and verbal abilities” category. These influence the acquisition and application of information in problem-solving, and are in shortage in almost all countries.

Labor market imbalances have increased in recent years in several countries, showing a relative deterioration in their ability to respond effectively to changes in labor market needs.

Results suggest that, on average, the countries that experience more pronounced labor market imbalances also show lower productivity levels.

A more efficient use of skill needs information can help workers and trainers make the right decisions when deciding in which skills to invest. Countries need adult learning systems that deliver not just any skills but the right skills, so that there is a better match between the skills available in the workforce and those needed by employers. This would reduce skills shortages and surpluses.

2. Make training a boardroom issue

Viewpoint from Daniela Florea, Co-founder, Geo Strategies
What will it take to thrive in a workplace where AI, automation and digital technologies are the norm? Excellent skills in written and verbal communication, collaboration and teamwork will be essential.

Self-motivation, a desire to succeed, enthusiasm, initiative and curiosity will be vital too.

More prosaically, the worker of the future will need an ability to produce clear graphical representations and data visualizations that convey stories.

Numerical and analytical skills will be “hygiene” skills for the workforce of the future. An ability to translate technical features into better business outcomes will be more necessary than coding or advanced statistics, because technology can do those things.

Companies of every size, in every industry, should be simultaneously helping shape the skills of those entering the workforce and training their own employees.

Companies should get involved in every stage of education — from primary to secondary and university. Company boards need to take responsibility for ensuring close collaboration with education policy-makers and providers, and explain what skills they need.

Employers should also be involved in blended learning programs, and offer apprenticeships where appropriate.

They should be simultaneously helping to shape the skills of those entering the workforce and training their own employees. This is true for companies of every size, in every industry.

We need to get together to promote awareness, entrepreneurship and inspirational learning, and companies can provide case studies of how they are solving real problems, and where particular skills have made a difference.

Education, training, creativity and connection are all part of how organizations can prepare for a labor market where growth depends on digital.

3. Focus on education

Viewpoint from Alexander Riedl, Deputy Head of Unit, Digital Skills and Economy Unit, European Commission DG CONNECT

As the British futurist Sir Arthur C. Clarke pointed out back in 1962, to the untrained eye, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” A work environment where magic rules will prevent the use of common sense. So those working with AI are going to require some basic understanding of logic.

Companies should not count on the availability of external candidates with the perfect skill set for their needs. Rather, they must train young talent — via apprenticeships and internships — and retrain and upskill their existing workforce.

Often, this will be cheaper and faster. It will also facilitate acceptance of new technologies and reduce the risk of disruption. Aware companies actively anticipate skill and training needs. They not only retrain their existing workforce, they also adapt their HR strategies to ensure they can attract, retain and develop the talent they need.

How can organizations get it right?

First, analyze and understand the existing situation — needs, offers, mismatches and gaps — and anticipate future developments.

Second, public policy-makers and educational institutions should come up with a “road map,” by which I mean a process and a timeline for handling the transformation and determining action priorities and pathways for action. To paraphrase former US President John F. Kennedy, don’t ask what the education system can do for you; ask what you can do for the education system.

Companies should use apprenticeships and internships to train young talent, and retrain and upskill their existing workforce.

Decisive action by all involved — businesses, education and training providers, and government — can enhance the whole lifelong learning cycle and therefore the performance of an entire economy.

4. Acknowledge that the future of human resources is digital

Viewpoint from David Storey,  Partner, EMEIA Talent Lead, People Advisory Services

Digital transformation success will rely on the right size, shape and skills, and HR functions must plan for the needs of the future workforce and then develop, track and leverage the capability of employees, contractors and partners to reach them — both complex tasks.

The good news is that just as digital is transforming business, it also lies at the heart of advances in the world of HR.

Traditionally tech-lite functions are investing in cloud-based systems and the plethora of associated digital HR applications entering the market. Data analysis is generating deeper insight into current employees, and enabling new approaches to developing talent pools based on underlying capabilities to match current and anticipated needs.

Similarly, strategic workforce planning can be used to distil capability “heat maps” and segment current roles by predicted lifespan. This enables companies to plan timely talent interventions to reskill employees, adjust recruitment strategies and quantify the investment needed to close skills gaps.

Digital is both the challenge and the solution.

Converting people data into people insight and acting on it requires a new set of skills for HR professionals. Just as HR is focused on recruiting digital skills for the wider business, the function must also evolve its own digital talent base.

Digital is both the challenge and the solution and, at its core, lies furthering human potential in an evolving world of work.

5. Train for a start-up economy

Viewpoint from Bruno Lanvin, Executive Director, Global Indices, INSEAD

Continuous learning must be the watchword for all workers in the future. If they are to beat competition from machines, they will need to acquire, develop and cultivate four essential capabilities. They will have to master complexity, be creative, communicate well and coordinate effectively.

Companies will need to develop their own in-house lifelong learning and development programs and tools so that they can continually upskill their employees. They will also have to work closely with the education system to develop appropriate curricula that equip potential recruits with “employable skills.” If they are to attract and motivate the top talent, companies will also need to embrace mobility and diversity.

To attract and motivate top talent, companies will need to embrace mobility and diversity.

But what about independent professionals, managers and workers in small and medium-sized companies that cannot provide in-house training? What about start-up founders and the growing army of “gig economy” freelance workers?

Governments and educational and training institutions will need to develop lifelong learning initiatives too. They will need to focus not just on employees but also on so-called “free agents.” Employers will take responsibility for training the salaried workforce. But who is going to train the rest?

How can we motivate free agents to upskill or reskill? We need a more positive message about reskilling, presenting it as an opportunity for further career and personal development.

6. Make sure technology is friend, not foe

Viewpoint from Steven Bainbridge, Expert, Cedefop – European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training

Rapid technological improvements are diversifying production and work patterns. In the past five years1 43% of employees in the European Union have changed the technologies they use, while 47% have seen changes in work organization.

People fear job losses as companies replace labor with capital; they also fear inequality as atypical work increases income volatility.

Jobs using moderate ICT skills need strong complementary skills in literacy, numeracy, planning, problem-solving and even foreign languages. Technology can perform tasks and collect data, but people decide which tasks, and interpret the data. As Pablo Picasso reportedly said, computers “are useless. They can only give you answers.” 2

Better skilled, more highly educated people are needed to exploit technology. But technology will accelerate skills obsolescence. Companies need to use technology to increase productivity rather than to replace workers with machines.

How far technological progress translates into a jobless, unequal society depends on human, not artificial, intelligence.

Governments and companies need to reorient education and training to increase the pool of highly skilled labor and help those on the wrong side of the digital divide. This requires investment and new partnerships between employers, social partners, learning institutions and governments to stimulate investment in people as well as technology.

How far technological progress translates into a jobless, unequal society depends on human, not artificial, intelligence.

7. Combine compassion, empathy and creativity

Viewpoint from John Marshall, Head of North America, Adecco Group AG

No matter how sophisticated robots become, they’ll never be capable of compassion, empathy and creativity. Yet these skills are key to success in the working environment. As many as 86.8% of respondents believe there will always be some jobs that humans do better than machines. The skills in which respondents feel humans will outperform machines for the next 10 years are empathy (67.3%) and creativity (65.6%).³

Technical skills will remain imperative for maintaining automated systems in the future workplace. We’ll need people with the right skills to create, program, fix and maintain technologies. Today’s marketplace is already experiencing a significant talent shortage in terms of developers and engineers. Uptake of math and science courses remains low in further education. So this shortage will worsen.

A diverse workforce is proven to aid problem-solving and provide a better understanding of the customer base.

Employees now expect organizations to invest in the development of their skill sets and seek opportunities for personal development, such as funded language classes.

In addition, the world is becoming more environmentally and ethically aware. The quality of an employer’s social responsibility policies is therefore more important than ever in attracting talent. Organizations are becoming more mindful of preparing for the future labor market, so many are linking with local education providers not only to invest in young local talent but also to gain an understanding of how young people see their future in tomorrow’s labor market.

Finally, a diverse workforce is proven to aid problem-solving and provide a better understanding of the customer base. Today, 69% of employers think that companies with a diverse workforce are best placed to succeed.⁴

8. Connect entrepreneurs and adults to the digital opportunity

Viewpoint from Véronique Willems, Secretary General, Union Européenne de l’Artisanat et des Petites et Moyennes Entreprises (UEAPME)

Basic digital skills are now as necessary as numeracy and literacy: the focus today should be more on key competences, such as problem-solving, communication, learning to learn, initiative and critical thinking.

Future workers will need to know how to use PCs and the internet, deal responsibly with social media and exploit its potential for marketing, and build websites. Many will also need to learn coding and how to use big data, program and design software, use machine learning and AI, and take advantage of e-services and e-finance – while maintaining cybersecurity.

Basic digital skills are now as necessary as numeracy and literacy: the focus today should be more on key competencies, such as problem-solving, communication, learning to learn, initiative and critical thinking.

These digital skills need to be reinforced by a broader view, such as:

  • Understanding service level agreements between companies and IT consultants
  • Awareness of opportunities in using digital platforms (e.g., delivery services) to sell products

Digital skills training should not only focus on young people. Entrepreneurs and adults also need digital skills to “connect to the digital highway” and prevent segregation between regions and businesses, and to avoid digital skills exclusion.

Entrepreneurship and a sense of initiative should be mainstreamed throughout education pathways and courses.

Legislators, public employment services, sectors, individuals, enforcers and policy-makers at all levels must create a level playing field in the digital transition – in terms of access to technology, access to skills, access to data, and access to innovation and growth opportunities.

One proven solution is cooperation and pooling between companies in the same area – sometimes between SMEs, sometimes between smaller and larger businesses in the value chain.


Europe’s countries, government, business and education can work together to unlock the continent’s digital growth potential and develop the talent it needs to secure a better future.

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