Of course, the most valuable resource of any country is its people. Making sure job seekers have the skills companies and institutions require is therefore paramount for policy makers. One way many developed countries have been doing this for decades is by projecting the employment and skills needs of their economies.
Given the speed of technological advances in the Internet age and the scale of the massive societal challenge that is climate change, equipping the workforce of tomorrow with the right skills is perhaps more important now than ever.
It is with this backdrop that France Stratégie and the French Ministry of Labour’s Directorate for Research, Studies and Statistics (Dares) undertook an occupational projection in 2015, publishing “Job Professions in 2022” (“Les Métiers en 2022”).
As part of their assessment and in view to starting work on the 2020 edition later in the year, they jointly convened a seminar at the end of March with experts from France, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Germany, the UK, Sweden, the EU, Switzerland and the US to share best practices and experiences.
Each country takes a somewhat different approach to occupational forecasting. The timeframes covered range from 20 years for Germany and 18 for Sweden to 10 for the UK, the US, France and Switzerland, six for the Netherlands, five for Belgium and only three to four for Austria.
The way in which countries divide up occupational groups also differs widely. The US enumerates over 800, Austria 530, the UK 369, France 87, Germany 50 and Sweden 45.
On the other hand, the approach taken to the data collected is more uniform, with the majority of the countries favouring a quantitative approach. Only Belgium and Austria place more weight on a qualitative analysis.
Other factors such as skills mismatch, emigration and immigration, occupational mobility and the prospects for school leavers also vary, with the different scenarios reflecting the specific social, political and economic reality of each country. Nevertheless, the general thrust of the outlooks is the same: it is either to bolster labour market intelligence and/or policy making with respect to education by projecting the demand for and supply of labour.
Linking skills to the job market
Putting aside the different tacks each country takes, projecting future trends in something as messy and unpredictable as the 21st century job market is no small feat. Jiri Branka, an expert at the EU’s European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP), set the tone for the seminar by stressing the two biggest challenges for occupational forecasting are ensuring the quality of the data and conveying the message properly, i.e. not giving a false impression of being able to predict the future while ensuring credibility and clarity.
As mentioned, there are two ways outlooks are used. One is to provide additional information on the labour market, helping companies and individuals make informed decisions. The other is on a policy level, helping governments determine curricula and Vocational Educational Training (VET) needs, for example.
There is, however, an underlying difficulty in job and skills forecasting that several participants alluded to: determining the impact of the data collected on decisions taken in the marketplace. Attendees also highlighted the challenge of getting the stakeholders – i.e. those who benefit from the projections – more engaged in the process.
The problem of data uncertainty was also raised. Michael Wolf, division chief, Occupational Employment Projections, US Bureau of Labor Statistics, put it to the floor that the more detail there is, the more uncertain the data are likely to be. The problem, he said, is whether this is to be stressed given end users are looking for simple, straightforward information.
Rachel Beaven, director, Cambridge Econometrics, explained the UK aims to both inform people and ensure skills meet needs while providing decision makers with adequate information on both the labour and job markets.
Austria, for its part, has addressed this need for short-term information by developing a way to track changes in the demand for certain skills in the labour market. Maria Kargl, project manager at 3S, a Vienna-based consultancy, told the participants how the mechanism, The Skills Barometer, takes both a quantitative and qualitative approach, using interviews with industry experts to complement existing data. She underlined that the lack of quantitative data is a major challenge for anticipating changes in skills.
Belgium’s Wallonia office for professional training and employment, Le Forem, compensates for this lack by carrying out studies to shed light on changes taking place in the workplace. According to Le Forem analyst David Piéroux, experts oversee these studies and are able to tease out hypothetical changes in the job market.
Where education fits in
That said, the link between forecasting – or as Statistics Sweden analyst Russell Schmieder prefers to call it, projecting – and the job market is a tenuous one. Branka emphasized that just because individuals know there are job opportunities in a particular occupation, it doesn’t necessarily influence their choice.
Tobias Maier, researcher at Germany’s Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB), pointed out the German government doesn’t consider its forecasts as necessarily for young people when they’re deciding on a career. This is largely because the probability they won’t match the reality of the labour market is too high. They are more a means of helping the unemployed get back into the workplace. As with Sweden, Germany looks at past trends and uses them to project future developments.
This is not to say the forecasts are not of use for post-secondary institutions. Didier Fouarge, head of research of the Dynamics of the Labour Market programme, Maastricht University, said that in the Netherlands universities had made use of forecasts to decide on which courses would meet labour market needs.
Branka, however, highlighted the experience of his country, the Czech Republic, where occupational forecasts have not had an impact on education decisions made by young people and where certain fields, like architecture, defy projections.
The question of the extent to which an education should lead to a job is fraught with difficulty for occupational forecasting. Should policy makers consider that an education necessarily, as Schmieder suggested, leads to a career? Or should the approach be that young people best pursue their interests and policy makers not try to project which degrees will be in particular demand, as Maier posited?
Whatever the answer, data on education can clearly be of use to policy makers. Jacques Babel, expert, Federal Statistical Office, Switzerland, explained the latter analyzes the level of education of the Swiss population and both nationals studying abroad and foreigners studying in Switzerland in order to aid in planning the country’s higher education system.