A more sustainable economy should build on social capital, skills and expertise. The bioeconomy, claims to do just that, to leverage the know-how of existing industries and researchers, put it into practice, and create added value. Even more, the EU bioeconomy hopes to create millions of jobs. However, it is important to remember, that this approach would also have to build on middle-skilled jobs from already existing industries and infrastructures. Thus, we can’t really have a “new”, knowledge-based economy without the infrastructure, knowledge and experience of “traditional sectors”. So are these traditional sectors ready for the transition, and most importantly, will their knowledge and skills still be needed?
So what types of jobs will the bioeconomy require? Foresters and loggers, drivers, manufacturers and sawmill operators ? Maybe some, but not too many. The skills you’ll need for a finding a job in the bieconomy will most likely be high-skill, that are needed in the lab rather than in the forest or in the factory. With other words, you’re more likely to get a job if you know how to chemically deconstruct lignin or write an algorithm than if you know how to work a chainsaw. The EU bioeconomy strategy claims it would create economic growth and jobs in rural, coastal and industrial areas. But, at least until now, it seems that most of these jobs have gone to highly skilled researchers who receive funding associated to the bioeconomy (such as Horizon 2020, or other national or regional funding programs). More industrial jobs are expected to be created in the near future, but here again the expertise needed surpasses the traditional modus operandi.
“Job polarization” is already preoccupying economists. It essentially means that middle-skill jobs (such as manufacturing jobs) are in decline. On the other hand, both low-skill and high-skill jobs are on the rise. Thus, the workforce segregates more and more into two distinct main job groups : highly-skilled workers (in our case, an example would be R&D experts developing state of the art bio-refining processes) and lower kills jobs (such as tree planters). The main reasons behind this stagnation of medium-skill jobs is quite straight forward: either they are moved abroad or they’re automated (to save costs). The forest sector has experienced both, in that it has automated many of its operations while still relying on lower skills jobs. Take Sweden for example, it has automated and optimized its forest operations, harvesting and management decades ago, yet it still relies on imported low-skilled seasonal workers from abroad to help with planting. This is also shown by the strong link between the labor input (in terms of the number of annual work performed by one individual) and value added by forestry and logging in Europe. It is important to note that this varies significantly between EU Member States (less annual labor input needed in countries with highly automated forest sectors(e.g., Finland and Sweden) in comparison to countries with less automated forest sectors that still rely heavily on manpower (e.g., Romania)).
So how to avoid this further polarization of the job market? And do middle-skilled jobs still have a chance under the bioeconomy? This dilemma is not new, and it has been puzzling economists and historians for centuries, starting with the the Industrial Revolution (textile workers vs machines and steam engines) to more recent developments (such as computers vs office workers). Present developments such as big data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are likely to stir the pot even more. A more optimistic view is that technology will end up creating more jobs than it destroys. With other words, technology gradually changes the nature of a particular job, and the skills required to do it, rather than replacing it completely. Take harvesting in Sweden as an example. Instead of working an ax, the forest worker now sits in a comfortable machine that does most of the physical work and calculations for her. The harvester machine did not completely eliminate the need for forest workers, it just drastically reduced their numbers. However, it is quite difficult to predict in which area technology might create new jobs, even more so imagine what these jobs might be.
Indeed, a truly innovative, knowledge-based economy thrives on high-skills and expertise. But if we have a chance now to rethink our approach from the ground up, we need to be thinking more about this growing polarization, not only on the job market but also in society in general. Coming from an ex-communist country I’ve witnessed such polarization first hand, not only between jobs, but between entire generations and nations. The tumultuous transition to a market economy has left many eastern European nations with entire generations of low and middle-skilled workers struggling to find their place in the European economy. Obviously, the manufacturing skills that one earned in a soviet gun powder factory didn’t help you much if the new job market required computer literacy and French language skills for teleshopping customer services . If you weren’t good with languages or teleshopping, you most likely ended up taking a low-skilled job abroad, either in construction, elderly nursing homes or…planting trees in Sweden.
“Lifelong learning needs to become an economic imperative“, reads a recent special report from The Economist, and I couldn’t agree more. Unusually, when education is mentioned in the context of bioeconomy it either refers to educating high skill workers to develop bio-based products or it refers to educating consumers to buy these bio-based products. But what about educating the workforce so that we have a chance in the knowledge-based, innovation economy ? Nowadays, it is essential to acquire new skills as established ones become more and more obsolete. With game changing developments such as big data and AI just around the corner we need to act fast. We simply cannot risk to have entire generations of people trained in one vocation (take for example vocational training in Germany) that lack the new skills and flexibility needed to navigate around the job market of a knowledge-based economy. We need to be able to reboot, learn and adapt to these changing demands if we’re gonna have any shot at slowing down this societal polarization. This goes for all, high- middle-low skill jobs, land owners and citizens.