Like so many others, Stefan Löfven is familiar with the wrenching experience of losing a factory job as globalization, automation, and other forces relentlessly reduce manufacturing employment across the West. The Swede, who trained as a welder after high school, had to develop new skills and pursue another career path after his plant closed.
Today, he’s at the World Economic Forum in Davos defending globalization, in his capacity as Sweden’s prime minister.
Not every out-of-work welder can trace a path to world leader, of course. But finding new jobs for workers threatened by outsourcing and automation is one of the most important, and thorniest, challenges for defenders of globalization today. The anxiety and anger that workers feel toward trade, technology, and related forces threaten to usher in a new era of protectionism, a pervasive worry among the politicians, CEOs, and assorted bigwigs assembled in Davos this week.
At a panel discussion about “Governing Globalization” at the forum today, moderated by Quartz’s Kevin Delaney, Löfven offered a spirited defense of globalization, drawing from his personal experience.
“Jobs will be lost. It’s inevitable,” the prime minister said. Given this, he advised, it’s best to focus on helping workers acquire new skills to find new jobs in growing industries. ”Protecting jobs is a dead-end street,” he said. “You cannot tell the market what to do or not to do.”
The sorts of skills that workers will need in the coming decades has been a big subject of debate so far in Davos. Also on the panel, Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, reached back into his early career as a young lawyer to stress how “soft skills” are something that machines or distance cannot master.
There used to be one administrative assistant for every two lawyers when Smith started at a firm 30 years ago, but now one can serve 10, thanks to assistance from technology. “You better believe that the secretaries that are successful today are much stronger in those soft skills,” he said.
Abidali Neemuchwala, CEO of Indian IT services group Wipro, noted that “we can take as many data scientists as we can get,” if only there were more suitable candidates. He also warned against focusing solely on young people when it came to debates about skills. The need to help workers in their 40s and 50s whose jobs are at risk of disruption is not emphasized enough, and the skills they need to make mid-career moves aren’t necessarily the same as the ones best suited to fresh university graduates.
The challenges of better “governing globalization” were acknowledged by the panel, but none suggested that a pause in progress was either attractive or possible.
Dambisa Moyo, an economist, author, and director at Barclays, is on the record saying that globalization needs to be all or nothing. On the panel, she argued for a stronger role for multilateral institutions like the IMF, World Bank, and WTO in governing globalization. This, she said, would help mitigate the “serious problem of myopia” in local politics when it comes to adapting to the realities of our interconnected world.