Saadia Zahidi of World Economic Forum on Oman’s Future of Skills initiative

Saadia Zahidi, Head, Centre for the New Economy and Society and Member of the Managing Board, World Economic Forum shares her views on Oman’s Future of Skills initiative in an exclusive interview with Mayank Singh

Can you explain the purpose of your visit to Oman?

In January 2019 at the annual meeting at Davos, HE Dr Ali bin Masoud Al Sunaidy, Minister of Commerce & Industry signed a partnership with the World Economic Forum (WEF) on the topic of skills. At WEF we are very excited as Oman is the first country from the region which has taken on this kind of commitment. As a forum we have evolved as a platform that produces research and conducts amazing events around the world; but most importantly we are trying to create frameworks that different countries and companies can replicate. Oman became one of the first countries globally and also the first in the region to agree to customise such a framework for the country. As Oman learns more about what works and what doesn’t, it becomes a global pilot which other countries can adopt. It is in that context that we met again in China and looked at technologies that are changing the world and now we are here to convince Omani companies about coming on board for this initiative whether it is for reskilling, upskilling or for building a long-term work force by engaging more closely with the education system. The biggest emergency is the current workforce, after that there is more that needs to be done on the future workforce as well. We organised an interaction with senior business leaders around this theme and I hope it has convinced them to work more closely with this initiative.

How will this initiative progress ahead from this point?

We still have a lot of knowledge gaps to fill, so we started with a survey at ‘Private Sector Briefing for Oman’s Future Skills’ initiative, and that survey will go in-depth into understanding the skill needs within Omani companies. The WEF will also provide the Global Future of Jobs survey which will allows Oman to assess itself compared to other countries around the world. Based on these two assessments of the knowledge gaps, we will create a skills framework for the entire country. This is important because you cannot get started without knowing where you are trying to go; so that’s one piece.

The second piece is what is called the whole of government approach and it does not work if it is just one ministry or the other. We have discovered this in every skill accelerator that we have worked with around the world. The initiative works only if it is a coordinated effort across different ministries. Let’s assume we want to know as to where the country needs to be in 2030; it’s not possible to grow the right set of skills unless everyone from industry, commerce, education powers skills by coming together. The third aspect and this is where the forum can provide a lot of support is the public-private initiative that needs to be set up. Some part of the public private partnership is about getting over the competitive approach that companies have over talent. There is no reason why talent needs to be a competitive issue, because there is a very strong business case for collaboration between companies even from the same sector and companies can work together on reskilling and upskilling. Secondly, companies need to work together to have a dynamic labour market information system and this is again something that is better done together than in a competitive way. The third thing is who is going to provide some of this reskilling? The forum has set up a global consortium of companies that include the likes of LinkedIn, Upwork, and Coursera which are at the cutting edge of understanding skills that we need and how to deliver them. We will be working with them and bringing them to the Oman initiative as well as all the other initiatives that we are setting up around the world.

Is there a time frame in which Oman’s Future Skills initiative will be implemented?

The time frame that we see from the global perspective is that we spent the last year setting up various initiatives in Oman and other places around the world. In January 2020, we will present the action plan from the different countries to a global audience through our annual meeting in Davos and then there are two years to deliver on that action plan. It will take all of 2020 and 2021 and by the end of 2021 we need to meet the objectives of the number of employees that are being reskilled and upskilled along with the next generation that is being reskilled and upskilled. It is very ambitious and there is a reason why it is called an accelerator. We have signed up for similar programmes with India, Pakistan, the UAE, South Africa, Argentina and are in conversation with a number of other countries.

You are involved with the ‘new economy’ concept at WEF. What does the term new economy mean?

It is a very broad topic and we have divided it up into three main categories – one is the new vision for growth and competitiveness. The WEF has been producing the Global Competitiveness Report for the last 40 years; but in 2018 we announced a completely new methodology because what used to be the tools of competitiveness in the past are no longer the tools of competitiveness in future. There are certain things that remain the same, like institutions and infrastructure; but you also need an entrepreneurial ability, business dynamism, skills of the work force and better financial markets. Keeping these in mind, we have created a new structure for competitiveness and are working with countries to make them understand as to how far away they are from these new tools.

The second piece of the agenda is changing the measurements; for example, all of us know that GDP alone is no longer the measure that we should be using for many reasons – one, because so much digital economic activity is happening that is not captured in GDP. And growth for growth sake is not important; what is important is that it is sustainable and inclusive. So we are changing some of the measures and helping the world understand what these measures are. The third aspect is that the new economy requires new policy making; so for example, most traditional competition policy laws don’t necessarily apply in today’s economy where you have got massive platforms which are monopolies and we need to think differently about these. Fiscal policy and monetary policy are drifting in a way that nobody really understands right now and there is very little space left from central banks to use monetary policy as they have been doing in the past. These are examples of the kind of things that need to be rethought and we are bringing the world’s top economists together to surface some of the new ideas. This is not to say that we are endorsing the new ideas, but we are aggregating and publishing them as whitepapers so that everyone starts to understand them in a simple way. A second big bundle under the new economy theme is education, skills and jobs. If people don’t have the human capital or if we don’t think about human capital investments the same way that we think about tools such as fiscal or monetary policy, we will not be in a position to deliver to people the future that they need; hence education, skill and jobs become crucial.

Within that we are doing three types of things. One, new standards are being evaluated and propagated: like what kind of standards are needed for tech companies; what kind of standards are needed for new companies to think about HR; what kind of standards are needed to think about the gig economy and all of the platforms that are providing temporary workers and online tools. The second aspect is actual initiatives that bring different industries together to reskill their workers. We are doing this primarily in the US, with some of the biggest companies in the world that are part of these industry consortiums and the last one is this country level initiative, which is where we are working right now with ten pilots and then the idea is to do ten more pilots over the course of the next year.

The third big bucket is equality and inclusion and this is a big part of the new economic agenda. There is no new economic agenda without thinking about everyone’s opportunity and not just about the opportunity for people who have traditionally had power. So within that, social mobility becomes important. It is crucial to address the issue of how can economies either restore or for the first time create social mobility across the entire economy regardless of where one’s parents are born or the income level in which one belongs. Second is more micro; as in how do we look at diversity and inclusion in a way that is not just about gender but also about different nationalities, different religions, people being able to work together within a company environment with disabled people; and then the final one is focused on gender equality both at the macro and micro level. So this is the way we define the new economy in society and that is what we are currently doing.

Can skilling and job creation be left to the corporate sector or does it require government intervention?

It needs a balance, like everything else. We think about skills as a public good and hence we need to manage it that way. This means that there has to be some investment and change in behaviour from the private sector; but there also needs to be some change in behaviour from the workers themselves and finally there has to be a different kind of regulation from the government when it comes to skills. The latest ‘Competitiveness Report’ that came out from the WEF ranks Oman 53rd and some of the issues that come out are related to public debt. If we move beyond that and if you look at some of the other details like labour market flexibility, we realise that there needs to be change in terms of skill development, business dynamism and entrepreneurship. So it is really the human factors that matter, and it is not about a top-down policy approach neither is it about the private sector running the show but the two things coming together; and that’s why we set up an initiative like this. If you want to deal with labour market issues, skills-related issues, education-related issues, it needs the public and private sector to work together.