By Robert Muller, Michael Kahn and Michael Nienaber
PRAGUE (Reuters) - With theatres closed and work prospects dim, Czech actor Tomas Novotny put his stage career on hold and trained to become a gravedigger.
The coronavirus reshaping Europe's labour markets has spurred workers like Novotny to seek new career paths as old jobs disappear or remain beset with uncertainty about any return to normal.
Not all changes are as dramatic as that of the 36-year-old actor but his is an early illustration of a shift that will require people to take on new skills to compete.
"I'm glad for this opportunity," Novotny told Reuters at a training site in Prague, demonstrating a technique using wood and iron rods to roll a 600-kg tombstone off a grave.
"The uncertainty and not knowing when we can return to normal is the worst thing ... This gives me some work and if things go well I could be in charge of a cemetery."
Widespread use of furloughs in Europe's meant unemployment there rose less than in the United States. But as these schemes wind down, the fear is that many jobs in pandemic-scarred sectors will no longer be viable.
Some 100 million workers in advanced economies will need to switch occupations within the next decade, 25% more than expected before COVID-19, consultancy McKinsey forecasts.
The challenge posed by greater automation or online activity due to the pandemic also means workers will need to acquire new skills at a rate scarcely seen before - providing a big edge to those who remain employed with access to in-company training.
The Czech Confederation of Employers and Business Association, expects a 10-fold rise in numbers taking re-qualification courses this year.
"The need for re-qualification will grow because the pandemic is speeding the need for companies to adapt," its president, Jan Wiesner, said.
WOMEN, YOUNG WORKERS AT SHARP END
Less well educated workers and those in hard-hit sectors like the service industry often lose out on training programmes, said Barbara Gerstenberger, Head of the Working Life unit at Dublin-based Eurofound, which seeks to improve living and working conditions in the European Union.
Because of that, she said, young people and women will suffer disproportionately in this downturn and, potentially lacking the necessary skills upgrades, find it harder to re-enter the workforce.
"Up-skilling and retraining is up to them," she told Reuters. "If this situation is not reversed it will lead to longer-term consequences."
The economic stakes are high. While inequalities could worsen within populations, individual countries better placed to handle the shift could gain a competitive advantage over others in the bloc.
Enzo Weber, a job market expert at Germany's IAB think-tank, said Europe’s largest economy could emerge relatively well from the crisis, given its system of further education and vocational and in-house training.
"But this only works as long as firms are not going bust and have a clear view where their business is heading," Weber said.
"If a company - let's say in classic retailing or aviation – is running into trouble, one of the first things it will do is scaling back efforts for vocational training."
An IAB survey last year showed that just 5% of furloughed employees were in job qualification or retraining programmes, suggesting many companies are hoping they can carry as before once the crisis ends, he noted.
DIGITAL SKILLS DEFICIT
Even before COVID-19, however, Europe was falling behind in the digital economy.
A European Court of Auditors report last month showed a third of adults in EU employment had no basic skills in that key area and that EU spending over the last 5-10 years had failed to help.
A shortfall in digital skills is also a concern for companies in Britain, where the government faces calls to devote resources to quick-fire training programmes.
The EU hopes to address its deficit, as well as the concern that the bloc's wealthier countries will adapt better to post-COVID economic realities, with a 750-billion-euro ($894 billion)recovery fund that member states signed off on last summer.
Aimed at generating an additional two percentage points of GDP in the euro area by 2026, the fund also sets an ambitious goal of have 120 million adults per year participating in learning.
As part of that retraining push, the European Commission has received 10-11 billion euros from partners in the automotive, microelectronics and defence industries.
Encouraging member states to re-skill workers worst affected by the pandemic, notably women, young people and vulnerable groups, was a priority for the Commission, a spokesman said.
While Czech actor Novotny dreams of possibly returning to the stage one day, 30-year-old German hospitality worker Caroline Luebke is looking forward to retraining as a certified office management assistant.
Germany's Labour Office has organised and financed her two-and-half year course offering a mix of theory and practice she hopes gives her more options in an uncertain labour market.
"The coronavirus crisis has changed everything," Luebke told Reuters. "For me, hospitality can’t offer the same job security anymore. Who knows when the next pandemic will hit?"
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(Reporting by Michael Kahn and Robert Mueller in Prague, Michael Nienaber in Berlin, Jan Strupczewski and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels, William Schomberg in London; Editing by Mark John and John Stonestreet)