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Softly softly workforce
Print – Issue 174 | Article of the Week

Jeremy Auger


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The Digital Revolution of the 20th century was, without question, disruptive and those at the forefront left those trailing, in the dirt. It was slower, predictable by comparison to the disruptive technology of today, and the same reluctance is being demonstrated, as we inevitably move into the next transformational shift. It will redefine the world in which live and work and fuel the same concerns, that technology will replace human jobs.

Article by Jeremy Auger, Chief Strategy Officer – D2L

By 2020, over a third of the skillsets will comprise skills not yet considered core to that job. That’s not some far off, feared future dystopia, it’s next year. So, what does that imminently mean for the training and development of the future workforce? There is no prescriptive solution, technology is, as they say, disruptive and unpredictable, and how that will impact different business sectors and the array of skillsets from the people working within them, will differ greatly. An example is; a supply chain manager and a lawyer may have few similar transferable skills, but while there will still be distinct talents needed between fields of work, the increased presence of technology and AI to automate an increasing number of tasks will continue to shorten the shelf-life of many skills and narrow the range of “durable” skills of the future. This shift has recently caught the attention of business analysts. A 2017 World Economic Forum Education and Skills report stated that the half-life of hard skills is continually falling – now standing at only about five years. Essentially, in five years, valuable skills gained in school or in the workplace will be half as valuable as they were when they were first acquired. On a similar note, a 2017 McKinsey Global Institute survey, reported that 62 percent of business leaders believe that more than a quarter of their staff will need to be retrained, in part because of the impact of automation and digital technologies.

“Rethink the nomenclature of “soft skills”. Rather than the subordinate skills that complement “true skills”, we should reframe them as “durable skills,” capable of adapting to, and weathering, the potentially dramatic changes in job skills requirements in the future”  

Delegating routine tasks to machines and eliminating the human element could have a positive impact on a company’s bottom line, lower-skilled workers may be left out of a job. But a recent PWC report revealed that 35 percent of the global working population expressed concern that their responsibilities might be reduced by automation technology and, as a result, their roles may become obsolete. It is clear that these technologies will have a huge impact on the way we work, the skills businesses value, and the interaction between companies and their employees. As this seismic shift plays out, how we redefine skillsets and lay the foundations for a new way of working, is beyond all others, the most critical business priority. As AI advances, automating increasingly complex tasks, a premium is being placed on skills that are not easily replicated or performed by machines. Soft skills, which involve effective interaction with other humans, are difficult to measure but critical to the ecosystem of a successful workplace. A recent LinkedIn survey showed that 57 percent of business leaders say they now consider soft skills as more important than hard skills. This is in no small part because of the adaptable mindset that is intrinsic to those with strong soft skills. As the pace of technological change makes future jobs and their job skill requirements an uncertain quantity, employers are motivated to seek out workers who can be taught and retaught skills more easily, and as needed. As the spotlight intensifies, it is necessary to rethink the nomenclature of “soft skills”, the usual definitions, of course, relating to; personal attributes, how the individual works with others, attitude, communication, creative and critical thinking, work ethic, teamwork and decision making, to name a few. Rather than being considered the subordinate skills that complement the true skills, i.e. hard skills, we should reframe soft skills as “durable skills,” capable of adapting to, and weathering the potentially dramatic changes in job skills requirements in the future. So, what does this mean for the future workforce? Although it seems unlikely we will see the side-lining of hard skills entirely in the next few years, this shift in focus on durable skills will eventually mature into a new kind of flexible workforce. 

Today, a flexible workforce is roughly defined as having employees with multiple skillsets to ensure that no individual worker is so business critical that their absence would damage productivity. In the future, the workplace itself will become a bastion of lifelong learning, where the development of new skills, as dictated by changing market needs, would be baked into an employee’s job function. Technological advances would not decimate job roles, as a learning culture would promote fluid skillsets that can adapt quickly to changing requirements. This, of course, is the ideal vision of the future workforce. However, our traditional systems of learning and development cannot yet adequately address the durable skill needs of all students and employees in the present, let alone in the workforce of the future. Take the changing role of the accountant, for example. Traditionally seen as an administrative position, with much of the work focused on transaction matching, remittances and month-end closes, is now handled by automated software. The accountant’s role has subsequently shifted to that of a trusted advisor to clients, utilising interpersonal skills above technical skills. The challenge here is that it is unlikely accountants will have been equipped with the communication and negotiating skills now needed for the role during their training.

For students in higher education, durable soft skills development has traditionally played second fiddle to the more job-specific knowledge. For example, an accountant is primarily taught technical skills that they can apply to financial statements, while soft or people skills might be largely neglected. This is not, however, solely down to an outdated focus on hard skills by academia. One of the biggest challenges with durable skills is that they are more difficult to teach and are not easily assessed. Durable skills require continuous coaching, mentoring, and feedback to understand, apply and master – something that, through traditional teaching methods, is beyond the scope of most higher education programs. With higher education struggling to keep pace with changing needs in the jobs market, we are seeing a durable skills gap emerge. A LinkedIn survey of hiring managers revealed that they are struggling to find candidates with the right durable skills for 59 percent of open roles. The onus, therefore, falls on the corporate side to equip existing and future employees with the durable skills they need to provide long-term business value. Unfortunately, most businesses are not currently providing a suitable enough learning culture to accomplish this. A joint survey from ATD Research and the Institute for Corporate Productivity found that only 31 percent of companies have a well-developed learning culture. Amongst the more granular findings, the average employee is provided only 24 minutes of workplace training a week. Needless to say, this is insufficient to meet the durable skills quota needed to prepare a workforce for the new flexible working model described herein. Just as traditional jobs constantly transform and are quickly being redefined in the current market, the system of training employees also needs to be restructured to keep up with these transformations. To create a suitable learning culture, and attract and retain a skilled workforce, employers must provide their employees with high-quality engaging training and development opportunities, which are agile enough to continually meet global skills trends. Although building a skills development program is a challenge initially, businesses will be under growing pressure to provide ongoing learning opportunities for their employees to prepare for the broad impacts of ongoing technological developments.

Technology may well be the root cause for this change, but it also offers a potential solution. With the scale of the durable skills gap so vast, the use of digital training programs, which can reach all employees anytime and anywhere, are relatively low cost per capita. They can also be easily tailored for shifting needs, making them a good first step in promoting a lifelong learning culture. Use of digital technologies can also help provide more personalized skills-development programs as employers can harness the power of data and implement more targeted and adaptive training pathways for employees. Although predicting the future is a difficult task, we are already seeing the greater import of human-centric skills against the backdrop of rising technological automation. To meet the needs of this flexible workforce of the future, the ground work for new systems of learning, both in education and in the corporate world, must be laid now. 

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