In recent years technologists appearing at the annual World Economic Forum event in Davos, Switzerland, were largely discussing the impact of the 'fourth industrial revolution', AI and automation - however this year their choice topic was the digital 'skills gap'.

Industry heavyweights like Michael Dell and Satya Nadella talked about 'digital inequality' and spitballed potential solutions to addressing the global talent shortage, using oft-repeated words like inclusivity to soften their hard-right, laissez faire economic outlook.

Creative Commons: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2019 Public
Creative Commons: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2019 Public

Dell even responded with a plainly sarcastic comment when asked about congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's proposal for a 70 percent marginal tax rate, saying that he trusts his own foundation to distribute wealth more than the government.

Photo courtesy of the World Economic Forum

Teachers in the beleaguered British and American public sector have both led high-profile strikes in recent years over unfair pay, conditions and large class sizes. Teachers in Los Angeles striking in response to privatisation models being the most prominent of late.

Education historian Diane Ravitch writes that groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation often drive privatisation initiatives under the guise of philanthropy. They are supported by other figureheads from big tech, such as Oracle's Larry Ellison.

As Ravitch writes, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation specifically has a history of undermining public teaching institutions, instead promoting private academies that align more closely with the goals of industry.

So it grates somewhat to hear a panel this week -- titled 'Making Digital Globalisation Inclusive' -- bemoaning the lack of access to talent in data science and cyber security - insisting that partnerships between the private sector and government are necessary as the way forward, while undermining the change that a better-funded public sector could bring.

Michael Dell, speaking on the panel said: "The thing we are most worried and concerned about is the skills shortage. At the rate and pace that the world is digitally transforming, that is a topic where everyone has to be included, because we can't overlook anyone when we deal with the question of creating all the skills required for the future."

The 'skills gap' is often spoken about in industry as some kind of organic phenomena that has fallen from the sky as an unfortunate side effect of technology, instead of the result of human mismanagement. Technology companies, if they are truly concerned about 'digital inequality' and the dangers of an emerging skills gap, must instead pay their fair share - and work together with governments to improve the lot of all, rather than simply raising the red flag.

With technology workers who have these skills operating in an employees' market, plugging the skills gap could also make hiring more palatable for shareholders and to the bottom line.

At the same time, those high wages that draw in technologists to the big tech firms, some have suggested, could well be taking talent away from universities.

Michael Dell added that a path forward for addressing a digital talent shortage could be a cross-industry agreement not to poach those with the skills from one another - "the math doesn't add up", he said - but instead to collectively "hire them, train them and grow them from within the company" and to "retrain and reskill the existing workforce".

But if we are talking about the math not adding up: even taking the Silicon Valley giants at their word, an overly generous estimate would peg this as woefully inadequate. Training 10,000 here or there - while undoubtedly helpful to those employees - would remain a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of people who would be left behind in the United States alone.

As HCL's CEO C. Vijayakumar stressed, the Indian multinational employs 130,000 people - and yet it struggles with hiring digitally literate employees who are at the forefront of specialisms like big data analytics. He suggested that the workforce of the future will be those that can "learn and relearn" - and that the "people that are getting into the workforce are not well trained on some of the new skills that are required". Academia, he said, would "need to focus more on making graduates highly employable and well trained", suggesting, it would seem, that universities become incubators for the needs of business.

Salesforce CEO Keith Block also had disparaging words for the public sector, castigating the American government about the lack of preparedness for mass layoffs in the automative industry - while, naturally, ignoring the role played by the unnamed auto maker itself, or the efforts by private industry to undercut the unionised workforce over the past decades - instead moving operations to countries where it can more cheaply exploit employees.

He said there were not enough "economic incentives" provided to "reskill those workforces that have been displaced as opposed to just saying those jobs are being eliminated". How to tackle this? Salesforce, he said, has an online learning platform that it provides to customers as it takes them through "digital transformation".

"The problem isn't availability of jobs," he said, but "matching the skill set to jobs".

Perhaps countries would find re-skilling initiatives easier to fund if the players in big tech paid their fair share?

Even the Conservatives in Britain have named Silicon Valley offenders like Google and Microsoft as the target of a new digital tax, as outlined in Chancellor Philip Hammond's 2018 budget.

But this could raise just £30 million from each of these domineering companies according to reports, a mere drop in the ocean for these companies and figures that are frequently finagled and re-routed around Europe so that they pay very little compared to their presence in these markets.

And the technology companies were quick to announce their confusion over the proposals, saying that they should be in line with emerging OECD standards on taxing digital businesses, which are as yet unclear.

Companies by 2020 will no longer be able to use the 'double-Irish' technique to re-route the tax they pay to Ireland, a country which has a low corporation rate tax.

In 2018, Facebook paid just £15.8 million in tax despite a record £1.3 billion in sales. Other companies such as Amazon meanwhile - which made its money as being an aggregator for small business - are now shutting smaller businesses out while at the same time undermining the high street. True this is to be expected with any technological change, but it is transforming many local economies into ones where jobs are available in logistics and warehouse packing rather than the traditional retail model.

While the individual sales of each of these companies are dwarfed by Britain's yearly education budget - the second-largest public services spend in the country - collectively, if properly taxed, they could go a long way to help provide for under-funded schools, still suffering after nearly a decade of austerity.

Michael Dell added that he believes his private philanthropy efforts would be more efficient than higher income taxes, no doubt echoing the sentiments of much of Silicon Valley, which has historically been right-libertarian and mistrustful of government spending - it should be pointed out, while simultaneously working in tandem with government and enjoying lucrative government contracts.

We have insisted at sister title Computerworld UK that businesses are not doing enough to tackle the skills gap. Despite the many vendors that acknowledge the need for 'upskilling', the amount of work they are doing in the area is inconsistent with the gravity they tend to place on the emerging skills gap.

It is not new for technologists at Davos to be blasé about the destruction of jobs that emerging technologies like AI and wide-scale automation will introduce. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty said at the event in 2017 that IBM can be trusted to introduce a kind of AI that will complement human workers without necessarily displacing them, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella spoke about fears surrounding automation as the "lump of labour fallacy".