Technology leaders took to the stage at Davos this week to discuss their biggest concerns for the future, with the digital skills gap coming up time and time again.
In recent years technologists at the yearly World Economic Forum - where CEOs, academics and politicians meet to discuss pressing issues - have focused largely on the societal and economic impact of machine learning and automation. What did the CEOs of Microsoft, HCL, Dell and Salesforce have to say this year, and did they proffer any real solutions?
Speaking on the 'Making Digital Globalisation Inclusive' panel yesterday, Dell founder and CEO Michael Dell said: "The thing we are most worried and concerned about is the skills shortage. At the rate and pace that the world is digitally transforming, that is a topic where everyone has to be included, because we can't overlook anyone when we deal with the question of creating all the skills required for the future."
Michael Froman, president of strategic growth at Mastercard echoed these concerns. "The divide I am most focused on is the emerging gap between the data capabilities of the private sector, which are immense and growing exponentially, and the lack of those capabilities in the public, civic and nonprofit sector.
"I think we have an obligation to create the opportunity for those skills to be applied on some of the most significant social and economic challenges."
MIT academic Erik Brynjolfsson talked about the increasing automation of middle class jobs, something he writes about at length in his 2014 book the Second Machine Age, coauthored with Andrew McAfee.
He said: "While tech makes the pie bigger, there is no economic law that says everyone will get a share of that, or even benefit ... Medium-income jobs have stagnated, so about half of the US population has not been participating in this bounty that digitisation has created."
Keith Block, the newly appointed co-CEO at Salesforce said: "The thing I think about that is not so much a technology, it's society, government, public sector, private sector working together hand in glove to effectively absorb those technologies.
"Not just to provide access to that technology, which of course is important to drive opportunity and eliminate that divide, but how do we absorb this technology to ensure people are reskilled in the workforce?
"Are we able to embrace that technology so that we don't have massive job losses without massive job creation? It's that transition which keeps me up at night, not any one technology, as there will always be new technologies."
While Michael Dell added: "Countries that are most roboticised actually have the lowest unemployment rates, so I'm not convinced that technology is necessarily a big part of the problem.
"All of us collectively can do quite a lot to create opportunities so that everybody is included in this growth. It's going to require lots of new skills, capabilities and from our perspective we see a shortage of talent and skills and the only answer to that is not to take them from other companies, because the math doesn't work, you need to hire and train and grow them from within."
With the rise of digital inequality established, the panel went on to discuss potential solutions to the problem.
"The historic model of people being trained for 20 years working for 40 years and retiring for 20 years is probably somewhat outdated, so we need platforms that allow for lifelong learning," Froman at Mastercard said.
C. Vijayakumar, CEO of Indian IT multinational HCL Technologies said: "I think the biggest opportunity and area we can make the biggest impact is the area of skill development," placing a particular focus on the need for companies to constantly reskill their employees to keep up with technology changes.
This was a theme Block riffed upon, while also taking the opportunity to plug Salesforce's own training platform Trailhead (once a salesman, always a salesman), saying: "We have to get into a motion of getting used to new technology coming and reskilling and reskilling continuously."
Gayle Smith, CEO at poverty advocacy organisation ONE added: "Sharp digital inequality will prove very dangerous ... so what do we do about it? I don't think ad-hoc solutions, as good as they may be individually, are going to solve this, we have to think systemically.
"We don't measure where we are on digitisation and inclusion in the right way, who has a phone doesn't really tell us what we need to know about where to fill gaps. We have got to figure out ways to go to those that don't have a big enough piece of the pie, with basic digital literacy they can invent all sorts of ways to give them paths to greater equality."
One solution that didn't get a positive reaction was when the panel chair Heather Long, an economics correspondent at the Washington Post, asked Dell if he supports US congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez's proposed 70 percent marginal tax proposal.
Dell responded with a sarcastic "wow, what a great question" - before pointing to his work at the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.
"We would have contributed quite a bit more than a 70 percent tax rate on my annual income and I feel much more comfortable with our ability as a private foundation to allocate those funds than I do giving them to the government," he said. "So no I'm not supportive of that, and I don't think it would help the growth of the US economy. Name a country where that has worked, ever."
Block joked that he was thrilled that Long asked Dell that question and not him.
Skills of the future
Speaking on a separate panel, titled 'Shaping Globalisation 4.0' the day before, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella also had skills on his mind, asking the young panelists from WEF's Global Shapers programme a question: "We know that the jobs of the future will require different skills, so how do we equip the youth of the world for these jobs?"
Sitting on that same panel was Juan David Aristizabal, president and cofounder of Los Zúper in Colombia, an organisation focused on developing skills amongst young people in the country.
In an eloquent opening speech, he said: "We have a learning crisis. Machines are fast but humans are creative, machines can tell us about the past but as humans I think we can build a future and that is what we should discuss this week, with a learning system that works for everyone."
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