Picture: iSTOCK
Picture: iSTOCK

Zurich — Companies should set up portable accounts to pay for life-long learning to help workers upgrade their skills and remain employable as robots take over more jobs, Adecco Group CEO Alain Dehaze says.

As increasing automation eliminates many roles, government and the private sector should work together to fill skills gaps, while workers must become more flexible, the head of the world’s largest staffing services company told Reuters in an interview.

“If they don’t quickly reform their education system, countries will create a time bomb,” said Dehaze. “They won’t have the correct talent any more and companies will move away.”

The Belgian, who has led Switzerland-based Adecco Group since 2015, said its customers — employers who take on temporary and permanent staff — want more flexible and more skilled workers.

“Digital skills shortages are one of the biggest problems for many of our clients. In Europe alone there will be 900,000 unfilled vacancies by 2020 due to a lack of digital skills,” Dehaze said, citing a European Commission study.

Companies and workers must improve training to fill these gaps, he said, especially as every four years people effectively lose 30% of their technical skills because the environment is changing so rapidly.

Employers could either lay off existing workers and recruit new staff — an expensive exercise — or retrain them. Cutting a job can cost roughly $100,000 in Switzerland, three times more than retraining, he said.

Individual training will be particularly important as freelance workers make up an increasing portion of the workforce in the so-called gig economy

“Our current system comes from the time of the industrial revolution and is based on permanent work contracts,” Dehaze said at the company’s Zurich headquarters. “But the era of life-long jobs will soon be over. Society needs a new social contract.”

Office clerks, food workers beware 

Up to 375-million employees globally may need to change their work category by 2030, according to a study by consultancy McKinsey.

Areas such as office administration and food preparation will be among the hardest hit by the rise in automation, as robots and artificial intelligence (AI) programs take over repetitive tasks.

Against this backdrop, Adecco Group — which competes with Randstad and ManpowerGroup — has invested in training, buying General Assembly for $412.5m this year.

To simplify career-long training, portable accounts, dubbed “life-long learning accounts”, could be created, Dehaze said.  Employees and companies would pay into the accounts and when they change jobs, employees could take the accumulated capital with them. If they need further training they could activate the account to pay for it.

Dehaze has discussed the idea with government officials in France, Italy and Singapore, an Adecco spokesperson said, noting that employees could be given tax incentives to pay into the scheme.

Individual training will be particularly important as freelance workers make up an increasing portion of the workforce in the so-called gig economy, as shown by ride-hailing company Uber.

Manual workers, such as plumbers and electricians, will still be needed, and those with broader training have the best chances, he said, adding that fears about jobs completely disappearing are too pessimistic.

Dehaze cited the US, where the proportion of people working in agriculture has fallen to about 2% from 40% in 1902 even as US unemployment hits its lowest level since the late 1960s. “The main concern is not that we will have no or too little work, it is about quickly finding or developing the right skills when old job profiles disappear.”