Can we future proof workforces and prepare for the jobs that don’t exist yet?
“There is a huge IT skills shortage,” yell newspaper headlines across the globe. “Discover the 20 coolest jobs that don’t exist yet!” shout listicles all over the internet. And then there are the endless industry events which see a ceaseless round of senior managers discuss the all challenges associated with hiring tomorrow’s shadowy workforce.
But beyond the usual fluff and guff is there anything we can meaningfully say about planning for certain future jobs? Well firstly, it is important to stress there has always been an ebb and flow of different roles. Last year Deloitte analysts published a paper “Technology and people: The great job-creating machine” [PDF] which examined UK census results since 1871 in conjunction with Labour Force Surveys (LFS) since 1992.
This showed the gradual change in roles over the last 150 odd years and revealed that in the time the role of telegraph operator entirely came and went. While the hairdresser – despite remaining a consistent employment – was counted at one for every 1,793 citizens in 1871 and now stands at one for every 287. You can almost guarantee that few nineteenth century barbers went by the title Senior Stylist.
“There definitely is a taste of hype around this [jobs] issue,” Kristine de Valck, academic director of the HEC Paris Executive MBA advanced certificate in Leading Digital Transformation tells us, “although all hype holds a fraction of truth at its core.”
James Smith, Managing Director at Networkers, Technology Recruitment seconds this point because as he puts it “disruptive technologies have always been part of life. Think how steam engine trains were replaced by their electronic equivalent.
“Perhaps the rapid technological change coupled with the effects of globalisation creating intense competition has led to a surge in demand especially in the IT industry where new solutions are constantly required in order for businesses to stay ahead.”
Nikki Watkins, the CEO of Tyche Leadership a leadership coach specialising in the IT sector takes up this wider point. “At the moment it is not so much that roles disappear it is that they have uniquely different requirements to three to five years ago – take traditional marketing roles vs the social media driven requirements of marketing today.”
While James Eiloart, SVP EMEA at Tableau believes: “It’s no longer about jobs that don’t exist yet. Data analysts, digital marketers, information managers – these are just a few jobs that are increasingly important within organisations; and there is a great need for talent in these areas right now.”
This certainly isn’t all doom and gloom or totally unfathomable either. There is still a continuity in core skills even if they need to be applied differently. As Dom Waghorn, Strategy Director at digital agency Syzygy puts it “a lot of us are currently doing jobs that on paper didn’t exist 20 or 30 years ago – but that doesn’t mean they don’t have clear provenance in other disciplines”.
So what can we do about it?
Part of the difficulty with skills is there are a number of ‘stakeholders’ in the process. These include educators, businesses and people themselves. And as Roger Philby, CEO and Founder of The Chemistry Group succinctly puts it: “The challenge, of course, is that what both teenagers need and employers want is not what our children are being educated for.”
Several of the individuals we spoke to in the course of researching this article highlighted specific technology skills that companies would need in the future and are therefore worth training for. These were the usual suspects of security, AR, VR along and machine learning. Yet specific skills and accreditations are only part of the picture.
George Brasher, MD of UK&I at HP says: “The roles of the future, whatever shape they take, are likely to rely heavily on a range of digital competencies.”
But Waghorn from Syzygy believes “a thirst to learn, and critical thinking can be more important than 20 years’ experience”.
Ultimately technical know-how always need to be backed with something else – just as accountants still tend to do better at work if they’re easier to get on with. “Soft skills set humans apart in an age of automation and robotics,” suggests Steve Hill, External Engagement Director at The Open University.
“Adaptability is itself a key soft skill that will become increasingly important as individuals have to adapt to jobs that haven’t even been created yet. Businesses need to facilitate a process of knowledge sharing – between different departments, diverse employees, and even between businesses – to boost this adaptability.”
Watkins of Tyche Leadership adds that for businesses “future proofing themselves will be more about hiring people with resilience.”
Many companies are putting practical processes in place to help feed the pipeline of talent. At the more obvious end of the scale this includes internships and mentoring programs for younger people but there also some initiatives in place to help those at different stages of their careers.
Pierfrancesco Manenti, Vice President, Research at SCM World says: “If you’ve already started to get staff thinking about how their role might evolve in two, five and ten years’ time then you’re halfway there.
“Many companies are now taking the practical step of investing in mid-career training programmes aimed to help staff prepare for innovations changing the way they work, as well as for future roles yet to exist.”
What does all this mean?
The real trouble with work and the world of skills is there are several different – and often contradictory – perspectives. This boils down to the fact that (very loosely) companies think employees have all the power because there are more of them, and so like Spartacus and his rabble army, they can rise up and revolt at any point. This often adds a tinge of fear to discussions around the future workforce especially in the case of the virtually demonised generation Y (and now generation Z too).
Many individuals, on the other hand, feel employers have the power. This comes down to the entirely prosaic reason that these great giants pay their bills and so young people (of whatever generation) can fear they’ll never get a job while older people might fear they’ll lose the one they have. Factor in the general uncertainty brought about by digitisation and you get quite a heady mix indeed.
Of course, the world is definitely changing but then it always has done. Cicero was berating “young ne’er do wells with their silly beards” back in the first century BC and terror of the unknown is a recurring human condition. So, while the specifics of IT requirements will clearly alter the workplace over the next few decades most of the underlying skills will be the ones that were always needed to thrive.
The best advice for businesses and students alike is probably exactly the same as it always has been: be proactive and try not to worry.