The technology at the heart of a future-ready workforce

Over the next decade, millions of people worldwide face the prospect of switching occupations or upgrading their skills if they want to remain employable. Businesses are turning to technology to help with their training initiatives

Rebecca Lambert
Rebecca Lambert
By Rebecca Lambert on 01 April 2019
The technology at the heart of a future-ready workforce

This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of The Record. Subscribe for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox. 

Almost 40% of American employers cannot find people with the skills they need, even for entry-level jobs, according to the 2017 report by McKinsey, Closing the skills gap: Creating workforce-development programs that work for everyone.

It’s a growing problem. By 2020, management consultancy firm Korn Ferry predicts that the technology, media, and telecommunications industries may be short of more than 1.1 million skilled workers globally. “Modern developer skills, advanced data science and management, cloud-based skills, and artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are all in great demand,” Jennifer Byrne, chief technology officer at Microsoft US, said.

By 2030, McKinsey predicts that as many as 375 million workers, roughly 14% of the global workforce, may need to switch occupational categories as digitalisation, automation and advances in AI disrupt the world of work.

So how can businesses prepare for the future, find the skills they need and get the most from their current talent pool and processes? “We need to significantly lower the barrier to skills adoption, for every employee in every organisation,” Byrne said. “Future workforce strategies that address training and certification, coaching and mentoring, aligned to broader digital transformation objectives should be a board-level initiative. Companies that invest in their current and future workforces invest in themselves.”

Byrne urges companies to focus their attention on ongoing skills development and make learning part of the company culture, so that employees are empowered to take responsibility for their own education, gain confidence in working with new technologies and be more willing to develop beyond what they know right now. 

“Creating an environment where learning is a core value, and a ‘growth mindset’ is embedded into every aspect of a company, can shift human dynamics towards curiosity and open-mindedness about new ways of working,” she said. “That reduces the friction often present in technologies rolled out across an organisation and hopefully creates more viral adoption of technology.”

Last year, Microsoft customer AT&T initiated a retraining effort after discovering that nearly half of its 250,000 employees lacked the necessary science, technology, engineering and maths skills needed to remain competitive. 

“We could go out and try to hire all these software and engineering people and probably pay through the nose to get them, but even that wouldn’t have been adequate,” Bill Blase, the company’s senior executive vice president of human resources, told CNBC. 

AT&T’s answer is an initiative known as Future Ready, a US$1 billion web-based, multiyear effort which includes online courses; collaborations with Coursera, Udacity and leading universities; and a career centre that allows employees to identify and train for future jobs. 

Microsoft partner Siemens, meanwhile, is also investing significantly in its talent pipeline. It spends more than €500 million (US$580 million) a year on training, reskilling and upskilling its employees worldwide. 

“New technologies and new knowledge are arising in ever shorter cycles,” Janina Kugel, chief human resources officer at Siemens, wrote in a LinkedIn article, “The digital transformation and the importance of humans.” “These rapid developments mean our workforce has to acquire new skills. To remain fit for work and ensure that we’ll have marketable skills in the future, we have to acquire new qualifications on a constant basis. This form of continuing education is a top priority at Siemens.”

As businesses look to instil a mindset of continuous learning across all levels of their organisations, then, they need to invest more time helping employees expand their knowledge base in a variety of different ways, including training, mentorship, hackathons and other creative forms of skills development.

“Massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other forms of online training, virtual reality and mixed reality for jobsite training, and AI for more precise insights into individual learning patterns and potential, are all great examples of technology helping itself,” Byrne said. 

Microsoft aims to not only develop a dynamic learning culture within its own organisation, but is doing what it can to prepare its customers’ workforces for the changes that digital transformation will undoubtedly continue to bring. 

“We want to help equip learners with the digital skills that are necessary for 21st century jobs and excite learners about the power of technology,” Byrne explained. “Our Digital Literacy programme helps instil learners with confidence in their ability to use technology. We also offer MOOCs, created by Microsoft and other leading partners, that teach key skills and concepts in technology. Our Microsoft Professional Program aligns curriculum (a specific MOOC content and a capstone project) to specific roles in technologies.”

Digital skills are only part of what employers need to develop, however. They also need to focus on the human capabilities needed to work effectively alongside technology – social and emotional skills which computers don’t have. 

“At a basic level, everyone needs more technical skills,” Byrne said. “The surprise, though, is the greater need for human skills. Technology can automate most things, but the aim of automation has always been to create more operational efficiency in order to free up the workforce for higher value or more qualitative work. That work usually requires interpersonal skills, creativity and an understanding of human behaviour.”

And one must not forget what all of this progress is actually for. “It’s up to all of us to shape the digital transformation in a way that serves human interests,” Siemens’ Kugel said. “After all, ultimately, the idea behind the digital transformation is to make the world a better place for people, not for technologies!”

Perhaps then, as we look to a future where almost two-thirds of today’s students will do jobs that don’t even exist yet, we can expect to see the entire notion of work and workplaces change almost beyond recognition. 

“Most companies are acutely aware that addressing the needs of their current and future workforces is an imperative,” Byrne explained. “Beyond that basic acknowledgment, there is a growing understanding that the notion of workforce itself needs to be re-imagined. 

“When we think about the workforce today, the common denominator is people. ‘People’ and ‘jobs’ are interchangeable in today’s conversations. However now the conversation is shifting toward skills within jobs, and I believe that is the next big evolution in the way we will think about how technology will profoundly impact the workforce of the future. Could we redefine the very notion of a ‘job’ and move toward a more shared and agile approach to accomplishing work, where specific skills and competencies are more important than singular career paths?” 

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