Since 2008, the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union (EU) has been 7.5% and in Slovakia 7.2% (Eurostat 2017). After years of slowdown, the economy is growing. The content and organisation of work, however, is changing. Automation and digitalisation are strong transformational mechanisms that will inevitably influence the labour force. A gap is opening up between current skills and future jobs. This will to a certain degree lead to unemployment, a significant shift of tasks and, at the same time, to a lack of qualified employees. How can the EU  close this gap and fight unemployment? This key challenge must  be tackled on multiple levels: on the national and European level, as well as the current labour force and youth.

Strategies on how to prepare for the new work reality and its social consequences are being developed by ministries in almost every EU state. In Slovakia, for example, the Ministry of Economy has launched the Smart Industry Strategy, which outlines the future trends and changes facing  the country’s industrial sector. The strategy reflects that Slovakia is in a difficult position. On the one hand, it has established itself as an automobile and electronics manufacturer—a choice that is currently driving its economic growth. On the other, industries of this kind are susceptible to high levels of automation and there are no guarantees as to how long large foreign companies will stay in Slovakia.

Currently, about 24% of the labour force works  in the industry sector (Slovak Statistical Office 2017). Robotisation will not occur at once. However, when it comes to the availability and desirability of labour force, the dependency on certain industries will soon become a challenge,. Some hard choices will have to be made about the long-term industrial development of Slovakia or even the arrival of its post-industrial age.

It will, therefore, be essential for governments to plan accordingly. However, innovation in technology is moving faster than  government responses. In response, the National Coalition for Digital Skills and Jobs  was recently established in Slovakia. It involves a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including the government, ICT industries and the education sector. The coalition is a result of the strong push and encouragement by the EU through its Digital Skills and Job Coalition Initiative. It is an effort to prepare Slovakpeople of all ages for work and life in the  emerging digital economy.

Statistically, the ICT industry in Slovakia employs about 3% of the labour force (Slovak Statistical Office 2017). This is a small percentage compared to  manufacturing industries. However, the sector has been growing in volume and this statistic does not account for the new business models that are being adapted in Slovakia (e.g. online platforms, sharing economy, gig economy).

The trend regarding the future of Slovakia is no different from the rest of the EU: jobs, driven by technology, will shift the labour market and the whole economy. Accordingly, acquiring the necessary skills to accommodate these changes will be key to dealing with current and future unemployment challenges. In the final New Pact for Europe Report, a warning was issued that without more investment in skills and education, future competitiveness and economic growth in Europe and EU member states are hard to imagine.

It is currently fashionable to talk about ‘digital skills’. There is a sense of urgency in the need to  teach people these skills to stave off future unemployment. But what kind of skills are we talking about here? For instance, should we be pushing for ‘hard’ science, technology, engineering and mathematic (STEM) knowledge? Can a coder today be guaranteed a job tomorrow? There should be no doubt that ‘hard’ skills are required in the modern workplace. However, it is becoming increasingly clearer that ‘soft‘ skills are absolutely essential to  retain.

At last May’s GLOBSEC Bratislava Forum, technology leaders from large companies and small start-ups were unequivocal about the need for employees capable of adapting to the fast-changing work environment. As they saw it, the ideal employee or entrepreneur must have analytical, problem-solving and creative skills. Ideally, the education system in Slovakia and other member states should be able to help students develop ‘soft’ skills at an early stage and relevant ‘hard’ skills by  the time of their graduation. However, designing such a  system on the national level will be a long process. There are other pressing questions that need to be addressed, for instance, how best to retrain (in some cases significantly) current employees for a rapidly evolving workplace?

When governments are slow to adapt their national systems, there are Europe-wide support tools that help to fight unemployment through skills acquisition programmes (with a particular focus on young people). A traditional and long-standing programme is the Erasmus+ Vocational Training scheme. Indeed, ‘traditional’ is the key word here. The programme is aimed at young people studying at university who seek to learn skills needed for a specific job in a short period of .

This type of training scheme has never been so important. Innovation is changing the outlook of Europe’s economy. There are more and more start-ups, established by young people. These entities are having a hard time to fit into the traditional way of training potential employees or even training themselves. The European Commission has created two experimental initiatives that try to alleviate the mismatch: the MobiliseSME Initiative and Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs Initiative. These training mobility programmes dive into the heart of the challenge—how to ensure the attainment of the right skills for the new work reality of Europe.

Practical mechanisms to fight unemployment by  teaching people new skills need to be introduced on the national level. The EU support tools are just that—a support, not a permanent system to be taken as a substitute. Given their leading role in education, social policy and industrial development, national governments will ultimately have to respond to the challenge of the ever-growing gap between current skills and future jobs.