4 Ways to ‘future proof’ your talent pool in a digital age

We are at the beginning of a major change in how humans interact with the world.  Everything is moving from a context of buildings, people and products to one that is about mobile devices, software, services and experiences.

So how do we as leaders prepare our workforce for the jobs of tomorrow?

There has been tremendous media attention on the impact of the digital age on employment. Whilst much of the attention has been focused on lower skilled, repetitive tasks, more recent studies are showing that it is the mid-wage occupations that are under the most pressure. An alarming prospect for society in general as the trend has potential to culminate in a growing disparity between the wealthy and poorer members of society; disproportionally affecting minority groups, migrant workers and women.

Greater unemployment also means reduced spending power – not an ideal climate for the health of our businesses.

But before we get sucked into an image of a truly dystopian society, where Marxist claims of revolution have never rung so true, how can we prepare for the next wave of digital jobs?

1. Invest in training and developing our workforce leaders of tomorrow.

Training and developing our workforce has to be a key area for leaders to focus on. Skills shortages in the UK were reaching “critical levels” in the last quarter of 2017, putting future growth at risk, according to a survey from the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC)[1], with a record number of firms reporting recruitment difficulties. Yet this seems relatively inconsequential when you consider that many of the jobs that will exist in 2030 have not been invented yet. I have deliberately not included a figure here as there is much dispute as to how this figure is arrived at and how we judge whether a job is ‘new' or just being done differently, with different tools. Nevertheless, the problem is a real one.

In fact, there are several parts to this problem. Firstly we cannot seem to provide the right educational skills for our youngsters coming through the education system as we speak. This is largely due to a ‘top-down' skills shortage, where due to the incredible pace of change, teachers themselves are falling behind in the skills gap and unable to keep pace with the change. Schools and colleges, for example, are crying out for teachers with coding experience to fill ITC roles and provide students with essential skills for today’s workplace. The introduction of the new ‘Tech levels’ goes some way to addressing this problem, especially given the fact that in the UK , youngsters now have to remain in education or training until they are 18. Between now and 2022, 15 new pathways will be developed in 15 sector areas where substantial technical training is required to progress into employment. But the structure of our education is such, that by our early twenties, our education is deemed largely complete. When you factor in that companies chasing these new skill sets insist primarily on degree qualifications to fulfil these technological roles, we have a major problem.

We have to really invest in training our workforce in situ and furthermore, we have to broaden our horizons to look at skill matching rather than just educational qualifications if we want to expand our talent pool or create new businesses. Zoe Baird, President and CEO of the Markle Foundation, makes this point eloquently when she points out that 45% of people in entry-level computer systems administration jobs in the U.S., hold a bachelor degree. Yet 75% of all jobs posted call for a bachelor degree. Why are ruling out a large chunk of the potential workforce?

“We have to broaden our horizons to look at skill matching rather than just educational qualifications if we want to expand our talent pool or create new businesses”

I also believe we need to move quickly to an idea of lifelong learning. The system needs to be adapted to a modular one, where employees can take on small chunks of learning that can be both recognised and transferable in new roles. It is the only way we can ‘upskill’ our current workforce and keep pace with the changes as they occur.

Each successive wave of automation has led to people being taken out of the workforce and re-trained, we have to understand we are at this moment again. AI and robotics will both kill and create roles.  In fact, I recently listened to President Bill Clinton being interviewed and when asked “What would be his No 1 focus if he was in office right now?” He answered “setting up a team of experts to dive deep into the job exits and role creation in AI and robotics and its effects on world employment and economies and income”. We need to think much more about learning and development being critical to our businesses and our workforce. Much more needs to be done now to speed up the re-training and ongoing development process but the irony is, we already have the data and tools to make this happen. 

2. Coaching and training our leaders of tomorrow.

Leadership qualities are brought into even sharper qualities in these fast-changing times. Gone are the days of reaching the pinnacle of your career and sitting behind your desk reaping the rewards of your endeavours. Today’s leaders have to remain agile, flexible and with a world-class change quotient in change against the shifting competitive advantage the digital economy provides. This means that you must invest in the continual training of your leaders of tomorrow, as well as providing them with ongoing and rigorous executive coaching for today. More importantly however, as laid out in the section above, you must be prepared to widen the net and look more broadly at the full skill suite, when considering who will be the leaders of tomorrow.

Regardless of frenetic meeting schedules, or the perceived competence of up and coming leadership talent, you must make time to attend to their training and development requirements NOW and keep check of their development. The challenge of tomorrow’s leaders is probably going to be even greater than ours currently is, given the predicted rate of digital development and we need to not just be prepared but to be realistic and ready. Change is already happening, it’s not an issue of tomorrow.

3. Don’t fall victim to arrogance!

Much like the skills-gap I referred to earlier, with teachers not keeping pace with knowledge, we need to be acutely aware of our own limitations and invest in our own training or at least be prepared to listen to those whose skills outweigh our own in certain areas. There will be times when the pupil will become the teacher and you need to be prepared to listen to those voices. Company cultures can become outmoded and inward looking if you believe you have all the answers. I am certain the board of directors of many retail companies are rueing the fact they didn’t listen to those voices alerting them to the need to ramp up their online presence several years ago. Furthermore, it saddens me to think of all the wasted talent caused by a blinkered approach to recruitment processes over the years.

4. Innovation in skills organisation and new ways of working

A report published by the EU this year on the impact of new technologies and the labour market found that digitalisation is expected to change not only the volume of work and the demand for different skill levels but also the organisation of work. Individual tasks performed by people will increasingly become tradable over the internet.  As a consequence, the share of self-employed people who work on a project-by-project basis for various clients will increase ('platform workers') and firms will gradually shift to more project-oriented organisational structures instead of fixed hierarchies.[2] However, the recent spotlight on zero hour contracts has shown the concern for the future welfare of the labour market. Project working is best suited once again to those individuals in the labour market who have skills that others need!

Are we getting to the point where we might need to tear up the rulebook?

Again, by way of balance, it is important to note that the advancement in digital technology and A.I. does not necessarily mean a declining workforce. There are some brilliant examples to illustrate how strong leadership and innovation can benefit all. Amazon invested in technology by bringing in 45,000 robots into their warehouse. They did not make more money just doing the same thing more cheaply. Instead, they were able to offer a different and better service. For example, same day delivery. Such was its success, they were employing 50% more staff the following year.

Apple put more people in their stores at a time when others were reducing their front of house staff.  Instead, they harnessed their staff with smartphone apps and did away with cash registers. The result – they are one of the most productive retail stores in the world.

Humans are great adaptors and as leaders, we need to be driving this adaptation and find smart ways to both harness technology and deliver job satisfaction, personal growth and wealth to our workforce, that we have depended upon so greatly to make our businesses a success. We are brilliant at turning commodities into ‘ideas’ and services into experiences, which in turn create wealth and jobs. The creative economy is just getting started!

[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2018/01/10/skills-shortages-critical-levels-risking-uk-growth-research/

[2] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2018/614539/EPRS_STU(2018)614539_EN.pdf

Fiona McKay