Reflecting on how to prepare for a post-COVID environment at the recent TCI Network global conference, Sandy Baruah (President and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber) cited “one undeniable rule”: economic downturns accelerate technology, and leave unskilled workers at an even greater disadvantage. This is an important observation at a time when policy debates are focused on how to recover from the socioeconomic shock of the pandemic in ways that ensure cohesive, resilient economies into the future.

Before the pandemic, the concern with skills imbalances was already widespread. The World Economic Forum launched its Reskilling Revolution in January, an initiative to provide one billion people with better education skills and jobs by 2030, and the European Commission’s New Industrial Strategy for Europe, launched in March, estimated that 120 million Europeans would need to upskill or reskill in the next five years. Indeed, the strategy highlighted the need for a new Pact for Skills that will be launched this November to galvanise the collective action of industry, governments, and social partners.

The skills imbalances facing industry are being driven primarily by the structural transformations required to transition towards greener and more digital ways of doing things. The use of green and digital technologies, alongside the new business models that go with them in many cases, demand different types and combinations of skills. What is more, we are seeing a clear acceleration of the digital transition as a response to the pandemic, and policy responses under the Next Generation EU recovery and resilience facility will ensure that the pandemic is also used as an opportunity to accelerate the green transition.

Thus, while the skills agenda may have moved into the wings temporarily over the last few months as more pressing issues have taken centre stage, it will remain a key piece in the jigsaw puzzle to ensure the resilience of our economies in the coming years.

Resilience is the focus of the 2020 Basque Country Competitiveness Report, which will be launched next month. One of its conclusions builds on the analysis of the Basque Country skills ecosystem conducted for the 2019 report, to argue that strengthening the adaptive capacity of the skills ecosystem should form a key lever for building resilience beyond the pandemic.

The need for adaptability and agility to be built into skills ecosystems suggests a key role for intermediaries that are capable of efficiently bridging the evolving needs of industry with the organisations, initiatives and indeed broader cultures that affect the supply of skills. Moreover, this bridging must happen in a place-specific and activity-specific context because there are important differences in the specificities of skills imbalances across regions and sectors.

In this regard, a recent discussion paper developed by Orkestra for the European Cluster Collaboration Platform has explored the role that clusters and cluster organisations can play in supporting skills for industry. It highlights their potential to bring together the strategic intelligence, demands and capabilities of a wide range of actors to tailor responses to skills imbalances. The paper cites a series of inspiring examples, including the AS-Fabrik Alliance in Bilbao, where cluster organisations are heavily engaged in addressing skills challenges, and argues that policy can better leverage this potential in several areas.

In accelerating the digital and green transitions that were already putting pressure on regional skills ecosystems, the pandemic has heightened the need to explore new solutions that take the adaptability and agility of those systems to new levels. These solutions will be critical to the resilience that regions seek to build post-COVID, and clusters should be a big part of them.

james wilson

James Wilson

James Wilson is Research Director at Orkestra-Basque Institute of Competitiveness and teaching faculty at Deusto Business School.

His research interests are in policy-relevant analysis of territorial competitiveness and socio-economic development processes.