Chances born out of challenges: Future employment in post-COVID world
David Lee
Staff members work at a workshop of Skyworth in Guangzhou, south China's Guangdong Province, February 10, 2020. /Xinhua

Staff members work at a workshop of Skyworth in Guangzhou, south China's Guangdong Province, February 10, 2020. /Xinhua

Editor's note: David Lee is a Beijing-based consultant and author mainly writing about energy, health, international politics, and international development. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

The COVID-19 pandemic is devastating the global economy in horrible ways. One of the worst-hit areas is employment, with the loss of millions of jobs, ransacking livelihoods. 

When releasing its annual employment outlook report earlier this week, OECD points to a "job crisis" where COVID-19 is "causing activity to collapse and unemployment to soar." To quote some eye-catching statistics, the impact of the pandemic on jobs has been 10 times bigger than that of the global financial crisis.

The outlook is dire, as OECD predicts its unemployment rate will remain high into 2021, though individual countries may demonstrate different dynamics as some are hit worse than others.

The OECD report calls on support for workers and efforts to create jobs so as to prevent the job crisis from turning into a "social crisis." While recognizing the support by national governments for those most vulnerable and hit worst, particularly women and young people, the report points to various forms of job retention efforts as effective government interventions.

That said, the unemployment pain is not restricted to more affluent countries in the OECD grouping. In the developing world where living standards, social security, and infrastructure are still catching up, unemployment is wreaking even bigger havoc on workers and their families.

While social support by national governments is crucial to protect worker security amid the pandemic, there are developing dynamics that point to emerging opportunities and exciting trends in the employment sector.

Therefore, national governments must adapt their supportive policies to the evolving employment landscape to safeguard worker benefits and welfare and promote economic recovery while managing the reopening processes that are taking place across wide geographies.  

I want to talk about two developments in the employment sector:

Firstly, the work-from-home trend arising out of the pandemic is here to stay. At the level of individual companies, the flexibilities offered by work-from-home arrangement shall lead to ways to maximize the effectiveness and performance of employees while providing emotional and psychological support for team members despite the fact that they are away from each other.

A worker works in a workshop of Harbin Boiler Company Limited in Harbin, northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, February 10, 2020. /Xinhua

A worker works in a workshop of Harbin Boiler Company Limited in Harbin, northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, February 10, 2020. /Xinhua

At the national and macro-economic levels, national governments must understand the impact on local economies as a result of a work-from-home arrangement. Emerging evidence from American technology companies suggests now big techs do not necessarily hire from Silicon Valley, and emerging locations that gather tech talents are rising across the United States.

For one, how real estate price is going to be impacted? Another key economic factor to be examined involves the opportunity to cultivate emerging business hubs that grow thanks to widely distributed talents that benefit from work-from-home.

That said, the changing dynamics in the workplace have a huge impact on the local and national economies. National governments must understand the trend and seize the opportunity to promote growth in wider geographies, thus bringing the benefit of development to wider populations. 

Secondly, amid the COVID-19, middle-level skill jobs are hit bad. The OECD report points to the huge challenges faced by those workers who are graduates of vocational education and training (VET) programs. Even before the pandemic, VET graduates are being pressured by automation and robotics technologies that are in the process of replacing human labor.

Meanwhile, the International Labor Organization estimated last week that the number of working hours lost in the second quarter this year, when the pandemic hit hard, could be the equivalent of 400 million full-time jobs.

The pain of the skilled middle-level workforce is real, but emerging trends show the fast-growing promise of more flexible work. Freelance job openings increased over 25 percent during the second quarter of 2020, compared to the first three months of the year, Freelancer's "Fast 50" report found.

Freelancer's CEO Matt Barrie explained the uptick of freelance work. On the one hand, in the post-COVID-19 global job landscape, employers reevaluate budgets and opt for a more flexible workforce. On the other hand, there is a growing interest among employees to move toward independent work.

While embracing hi-tech advancements represented by automation and robotics, national governments must address the trend of reduced formal staff and the rise of freelance work with adequate policy measures that protect workers' rights and interests. The flexibility offered by contractor-based work arrangement should be a way to enhance business effectiveness, but never become an excuse to fall short on benefits or safeguards. 

In sum, opportunities often are born out of challenges. The COVID-19 has disrupted the jobs landscape, but it also has accelerated change. Change is inevitable, and adequate policies must be in place to promote meaningful transformation.

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