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Imagining Interview 7 July Jul 2017 1657 7 July 2017

Do New Technologies Cause Unemployment? Not really. Training is the key

The Director of the OCSE Department of Labour and Social Policies has no doubts: "Automation will not create unemployment. The only way to limit the polarizing effect between workers and high and low qualifications will be continuous training."

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"Will robots, the digital revolution, automation and artificial intelligence produce enormous unemployment? No, but they will change the labour market – and in part – this is already starting to happen." This is the opinion of Stefano Scarpetta, the economist who leads the Department of Labour and Social Policies of the OCSE (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a consultative assembly that deals with economic studies for member countries that all have a democratic system of government and a market economy). "The data we collected there clearly indicates that we are witnessing a polarization of labour. And it is happening to all countries," emphasizes the director.

Today, technology is seen as the main enemy of employment. Is that so?
It is true that many studies tend to identify technology as a cause of growing unemployment. According to researchers from Oxford, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, for example, 47% of jobs in the American market could disappear due to the automation in the next twenty years. We started with these forecasts from Frey and Osborne, but then we mapped the jobs that are seen as “at risk” with individual workers and not with the professions, as they did. Given that within each profession tasks carried out by workers vary greatly, our estimates suggest that the percentage of jobs at risk is actually around 8-10%. However, another 20-25% of jobs will not disappear, but will undergo profound changes in the tasks, and therefore workers will be required to put in more effort towards retraining.

In fact, you do not believe that there is the risk of a rampant unemployment. Why?
The real point is not which jobs will emerge and which will disappear, but how much inequality will be produced by innovation. The gap will be between those who can have access to new high tech job opportunities with high salaries and career prospects and the majority – those who will be forced to fall back on jobs with low skills. It is called polarization and is happening throughout the world.

The real point is not which jobs will disappear, but how much inequality will be produced by innovation.

Technically speaking, how does this polarization happen?
The number of jobs based on routine tasks that can be automated will fall. Experts tell us that humans will remain masters of the areas of creative intelligence and social intelligence, even though research on artificial intelligence is focusing also on the empathetic capacity of algorithms. In any case, it will be necessary to adapt the curricula of schools and universities to give young people the possibility to learn the most useful skills for today’s job market, while we also offer training to workers who are already on the market. The real challenge is permanent education and training.

Training is very expensive, though …
We will need more than just significant resources to finance vocational training. It will also be necessary to change the governance: today in all OCSE countries, highly skilled workers are three times more likely to receive training compared to less qualified workers. In other words, professional training today tends to increase inequality instead of reducing it.

Italy is a paradox. While other countries decrease intermediate level jobs in favour of high qualification jobs, the opposite occurs in our country.

Italy seems to be moving in the opposite direction with respect to other countries. Could you tell us why?
Italy is a paradox. Our country grew slowly even before the crisis. This was because the number jobs was increasing and productivity was not. The reason for this is that polarization in Italy is concentrated on the lower qualifications rather than on higher-level jobs. While other countries decrease intermediate level jobs in favour of high-level qualifications, the opposite occurs in Italy. This also is explained by the backwardness with regard to innovation that is so common in Italy.

If training is such an important part of the recipe to govern the change in the labour market in Italy, what else do we need?
Italy has begun with some important reforms. Four, in particular: the Jobs act, the Buona Scuola, Industria 4.0 and the Agenda digitale. The first two will require a long time to show results. However, the second two are an essential first step. They provide the country with essential technological infrastructure to allow innovation to grow. In Italy, we have several outstanding areas that unfortunately do not form networks. In any case, the reforms system has already produced results: 800,000 jobs have been created and unemployment has been reduced to 11%, which is still too high but better than before. High unemployment among young people remains a problem, and we have a long way to go. It is important, though, that we analyse the situation as a whole. Analysing one reform or provision at a time individually serves no purpose. We must observe them as a whole, hoping for a clear picture in the medium term.

It is essential that, along with reforms, Italy be able to express a perception of political and economic stability.

What do you mean?
It is essential that, along with reforms, Italy be able to express a perception of political and economic stability. To do this, there must be clarity about the direction that Italy has decided to take. Only in this way will we attract investments, both internal and external. Instability generates mistrust – no matter whether it be political or economic.

And we have difficulty with training…
Italy has a 20% rate of college graduates, extremely lower than the OCSE average. This figure must absolutely improve.

How would you explain this percentage?
It is caused by two different but related factors. In the first place, in Italy having a degree does not guarantee access to employment, and in many cases, it does not even guarantee greater probability of employment. Secondly, it is a fact that having a degree does not correspond to a better remuneration. Today, in Italy, investing in a degree is risky and rarely rewarding.