The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8 is to ‘Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.’

Right now, thinking of the countless millions who have lost their jobs or been furloughed during the past year, this seems an impossible goal.

But it’s also worth remembering that the workplace has held up surprisingly well during COVID-19. We’ve seen phenomenal advances in remote working, while production and distribution chains have also responded to the extra stress, powered by automation and AI.

Three-quarters (74 percent) of business leaders taking part in the KPMG 2021 CEO Outlook Pulse Survey say they’ve accelerated the digitization of their operations.

For employers, the ‘work from anywhere’ revolution has opened up a global talent pool where location is becoming less of a constraint. Instead of entering a bidding war for the best people in key geographies, or having to re-locate employees at huge cost, companies now have the option to access these skills from almost anywhere in the world – often at considerably lower salaries.

These changes spell good news for both employers and consumers, with digital efficiencies pushing down costs and enhancing innovation and service quality. But it’s a different story for those workers displaced by machines or offshored talent. Many of these people are in their prime productive years, facing the prospect of years of redundancy. Add to this the many hundreds of millions entering the world of work over the coming years, and you have a massive education and employment task.

In the short term, governments have stepped in with emergency handouts to help redundant or furloughed workers survive and are ploughing trillions of dollars into stimulus packages.

But how can workers realistically compete for new jobs, in emerging technologies, when they’re not suitably trained? In most countries, the options for training/retraining, internships and apprenticeships are way behind what’s needed in a rapidly changing, digital economy.

Creating sufficient fulfilling jobs, and giving people the skills to compete for these positions, requires the same kind of large-scale mobilization that’s helping roll out the vaccine.

This won’t happen without planning and collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Most current education systems don’t prepare people adequately for the world of work. There’s a strong focus on academic subjects and insufficient emphasis on vocational skills.

When you consider that a lot of jobs in the coming decades don’t even exist today, that’s a scary thought.

We need more conversations between employers and the authorities responsible for developing curricula, to rethink the kinds of skills students need to become employable, ideally co-designing the curriculum around these new capabilities – which will increasingly be about narrow specialisms.

As the world economy recovers, we must rethink the definition and role of social protection as a true system that support people in their effort to remain productive and employable. We can’t just create short-term jobs to keep people busy. Employment generation must be a truly visionary exercise that looks to the long term.

In addition to paying the bills, work anchors people to society and makes them feel productive and part of something bigger than themselves. Take that away and you sow the seeds of social instability – as we’ve witnessed with the decline of blue-collar manufacturing, which devastated communities.

If we all apply this same spirit of collaboration and forward planning to education and skills, then SDG 8 can become a reality and not just a dream.