Prepare workers for new economy: CEOs

It will help avoid social upheaval, leaders at forum tell govts, firms

While the world embraces the new digital economy as the way forward, new technology's disruption of jobs and potential for social upheaval need to be addressed, captains of industry have said.

"Governments have to set the framework for social justice," said Siemens chief executive Joe Kaeser yesterday. "It cannot be that the worker who works for 40 years suffers from starvation when he or she is old," he added.

Mr Kaeser was speaking at the annual China Development Forum held in Beijing that gathers senior Chinese leaders, business leaders and academics from China and overseas and international organisations to exchange views on development policies and international cooperation.

About 260 delegates attended the three-day event this year.

"I'm not saying that everyone gets the benefits without doing anything for requalification, but you've got to have the social security in a meaningful way," said Mr Kaeser.

Companies, for their part, need to focus on "requalifying" current workers, he said.

SOCIAL JUSTICE VITAL

Governments have to set the framework for social justice. It cannot be that the worker who works for 40 years suffers from starvation when he or she is old. I'm not saying that everyone gets the benefits without doing anything for requalification, but you've got to have the social security in a meaningful way.

SIEMENS CEO JOE KAESER, on the need to equip people to deal with the disruptions in the new digital economy.

Noting that Siemens has spent US$600 million (S$787 million) yearly on reskilling and that some think this is a waste of money, he warned: "If we continue to be slaves of short-term-oriented capital markets, this society is going to act in its own way.

"And then the Fourth Industrial Revolution is not going to take part in industry, it is going to take part in burning cars in the street."

Concurring, IBM CEO Virginia Rometty said there was a need to create jobs that are not just for the college-educated but also for those who have not gone to university, "or we will have unrest".

Noting that 100 per cent of jobs would change, she said it was the responsibility of a public-private partnership to help people retrain.

There was also a need, she said, to prepare people to work with new technologies, in a world that is about "man and machine" and not "man versus machine".

Ms Rometty noted that IBM is working with nearly a dozen countries and 120 schools in which 50,000 children will be equipped with skills to "do almost any job" without a university or PhD degree.

Google's CEO Sundar Pichai also thinks that the days are gone "where you can educate yourself once and that's what takes you through the rest of your career".

Everyone, including governments and educational institutions, needs to support and adapt "to what we think as reskilling continuously".

He gave as an example of reskilling in the United States, a growing category of IT support jobs for which one can retrain for a year and be paid a median income.

Mr Pichai pointed out, however, that artificial intelligence lets more people gain deep expertise. For example, a radiologist in the future will be able to spend more time on patient care and not spend most of his time trying to decipher images and make sense of data.

"So it's definitely going to be disruptive, but I think it will also impact in more positive ways than people imagine," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2018, with the headline 'Prepare workers for new economy: CEOs'. Print Edition | Subscribe