The recent public health crisis accelerated employment digitalisation processes, highlighting the difficulties and inadequacies labour markets are experiencing in the face of digital transition. In the case of Greece, the weaknesses are mainly due to the increasing severity of social inequalities in the field of development of workers’ digital skills, as well as to the broader systemic weaknesses of the dominant productive model.
As regards the readiness of employees to meet to the challenges of digitalised work, the available data give us a fairly contradictory picture. According to Eurostat data, one in two employees (52%) in Greece has at least ‘basic digital skills’. Having started from the lowest positions on the relevant table of EU-27 states, Greece is now showing the strongest progress, gaining 8 percentage points since 2019 (42%). These percentages indicate a trend towards regaining lost ground, which is also confirmed by the parallel increase in the participation of Greek employees in continuing vocational training programs (12% – 4% higher than in 2019). However, this shift – however tentative – in the general trend is not necessarily an indication of a general dynamic in digital transition. According to the European Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), Greece ranks just 25th among 27 countries, while only 12% of Greek enterprises appear to be contributing to the development of employees’ digital skills, turning in the third worst European performance – ahead of only Bulgaria and Romania – and with the corresponding percentage of the leading country, Finland, standing at 38% (a difference of 26 percentage points). In other words – and according to the available data – it would not be inaccurate to claim that any visible progress in the field of digital skills acquisition is due more to the individual mobilisation and participation of the employees themselves than to the structured functioning of a national continuing vocational training system or the implementation of consistent development strategies by enterprises.
Greek employees are themselves shouldering the burden – and in many cases, also bearing the cost – of digital transition by making it a personal matter. Apart from any issues of cost transfer, passing on the responsibility of training to the employees themselves also results in the intensification and exacerbation of social inequalities in the field of digital skills development. Here, too, the data are quite clear: According to the Eurostat ICT survey, the participation of Greek employees in training programmes for the two-year period 2019-2020 demonstrates a strong social differentiation in key variables, including education level, income, urbanisation index and employment status. More specifically, according to the data processing performed by GSEE’s Educational Policy Development Centre, there is a trend of intense polarisation among populations of younger, highly educated workers and older populations, with the latter having fewer educational qualifications and being unemployed or economically inactive. Corresponding polarisations are also seen based on variables such as family income and household urbanisation index. Low-income rural and semi-urban populations lag further behind in terms of digital skills, with the gap growing when comparing manual and non-manual workers. The available data show that only 31% of manual workers have basic digital skills, while the corresponding figure for non-manual workers stands at 82%.
In summary, it can be reasonably argued that any detectable progress in the field of skills development is due more to employees’ use of their own resources and much less to public training policies or business development strategies. The general trend of low investment in the quality of vocational training not only shifts the costs on to the employees themselves, but also has the collateral effect of making inequalities a decisive factor in terms of the objective capability of employees as a whole to meet the demands of digital transition. The make-up of the workforce is starting to show clear signs of bifurcation, with employees divided into those with the necessary educational, economic and social capital to bear the cost of their own ‘personal’ digital transition, and those already in a situation of objective lack of resources and, consequently, at risk of finding themselves outside labour markets in the near future. At both ends of this bipolarity, the absence of quality public training policies and private investments is decisive.
This already ominous landscape is directly linked to the significant endemic shortcomings of the national productive model. From 2009 to 2019, Greece lost 20 percentage points in the composite quality-of-work index: casual forms of employment were strengthened, working time was deregulated, development of employee skills slowed, and collective representation structures weakened. In the current state of affairs, Greece’s performance is exactly half the European average. This trend is also confirmed by the corresponding quality-of-work index of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), in which Greece is the worst European performer, showing a dramatic decline in the past decade (-11.9%). At the same time, two thirds of enterprises in Greece (around 67%) continue to be labour-intensive – that is, offering low-wage, high-risk jobs. According to the available data, only 23% of Greek enterprises can be defined as, at least in some form, ‘knowledge intensive’. In other words, the situation we described earlier regarding digital skills arises almost as a natural consequence of a generalised and outdated perception of the organisation of production.
The lag found in the Greek productive model in the face of digital transition may explain to some extent – and paradoxically – the relatively low risk of replacement of employees due to a digital transition. The first relevant studies by the GSEE Labour Institute record low worker replacement risk ratios due to digital transition, varying per sector from 1.4% to 14.4%. If we compare these with the corresponding percentages recorded in the international literature, which are close to 50%, we conclude that replacement is not a significant risk for Greek employees at present. However, the wide range of values observed (the gap between 1.4% and 14.4%, depending on the economic sector) points to the existence of intense social inequalities and dual trends in the workforce. Presently – in what indisputably constitutes a Greek paradox – what appears to ‘protect’ less skilled workers from the risk of replacement is the almost ‘cultural’ insistence of Greek enterprises on investing in business fields and adopting operating models that continue to be based on intensive labour. In this way, the issue of digital transformation and consequent qualitative upgrading of the jobs on offer continues to have an uncertain future, while the digital skills gap is becoming more and more pronounced as a general trend of deepening social inequalities, critically undermining any efforts towards productive reconstruction.
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