A POLARISATION of the labour market that has seen growth in high- and low-skilled jobs but less opportunity for the “middle class” is a worrying global trend, an expert says.

Jonathan Barr, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s head of Employment and Skills Unit, said he was also concerned about stagnant wage growth in most countries which meant finding a well-paid job was increasingly tough.

“The big trend I see which is frightening is labour market polarisation … it creates a bi-polar labour market and affects opportunities for a vibrant middle class,” he said.Mr Barr is in Newcastle on Tuesday to address Regional Development Australia Hunter’s “Next Generation is Now” STEM Workforce Conference. Speakers will examine “next generation skills”, labour market and skills trends, technology in the workplace and how to develop the Hunter workforce.

Mr Barr said the nature of jobs was changing rapidly, with OECD figures showing that 14 per cent of jobs were vulnerable to automation across all 36 OECD countries, with 32 per cent of jobs also open to significant change.

He said it was crucial all workers had access to training, be it a young person entering the workforce or an older worker seeking keen to retain relevant skills.

“We know Australia has an ageing workforce so the training system must be agile and responsive and provide life-long learning opportunities,” he said.

An OECD report presented by Mr Barr at the Newcastle summit cites RDA Hunter’s pre-employment program STEMship as setting an example in developing local skills and engaging employers. In its second year, it offers pre-employment training for high school graduates and has led to positive outcomes for participants and rising industry participation.

“We have identified it as a good practice within the OECD … because it is an example of how to co-design training directly with industry, based on the active engagement of employers,” he said. “It takes a multi-disciplinary learning approach directly linked to the workplace and it is addressing higher skills industries because it is focused on STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] which helps support the transition of the Hunter region from manufacturing to a higher skilled economy.”Mr Barr said it was hard to predict where the next generation of jobs would be.

“Automation in the future workplace is a global mega trend and there will likely be many jobs in the Hunter that will be vulnerable to that, which is why it’s important to build STEM skills and embed digital skills into training,” he said.