How do you train people for jobs that don’t exist yet?

Posted on Apr 07, 2017

Learning strategies

The workplace is changing. The jobs that we do are changing. Some skills are becoming more important; other skills less so. Before long, some skills and jobs might not be needed at all. And there will be jobs in a few years’ time that don’t even exist right now.

All very exciting – but how do we keep on top of these changes? And how can we train people for jobs that don’t exist yet?

How work is changing

I can hear lots of you saying “but change is always happening. It’s happening as we speak…what’s so different about now?”

The difference this time is that the changes are momentous. Writing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, spoke of its “velocity, scope and systems impact”. He said: “The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.

“The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.”

That sounds pretty momentous to me!

The impact on the workplace environment, specifically for skills requirements, is likely to be dramatic. In its 2016 report, The Future of Jobs, the World Economic Forum predicted: “The accelerating pace of technological, demographic and socio-economic disruption is transforming industries and business models, changing the skills that employers need and shortening the shelf-life of employees’ existing skill sets in the process.

“For example, technological disruptions such as robotics and machine learning—rather than completely replacing existing occupations and job categories—are likely to substitute specific tasks previously carried out as part of these jobs, freeing workers up to focus on new tasks and leading to rapidly changing core skill sets in these occupations.”

What jobs will there be?

A few years back, Thomas Frey predicted the winners and losers, the jobs we’ll no longer need and the new opportunities that will emerge to replace them. For example, if robots take over all the physical and mundane jobs, there will be new skills needed in robotics. And if 3D printing means the end for clothing retailers and shoe manufacturers, won’t that lead to new jobs in the printing industry? Even driverless cars need some human engineering input.

Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, agrees. When assessing if the changes will lead to massive unemployment, he is adamant: “The answer to this question is NO. Jobs are NOT going away, they're just changing…Every company has the opportunity to rethink its own customer and employee experience, and apply technology to make it better. In some cases this means changing jobs, but in most cases it means making jobs ‘better’, reducing cost and mundane tasks, and adding more value to customer interactions.”

For students about to enter the workplace, this must look like a great time in history to embark on a career – all those cool jobs out there to do, such as being a drone manager or an air traffic controller for drones! And who knows? They might be right!

What skills are likely to be in demand?

Without the aid of a crystal ball it’s impossible to say with certainty what the future holds for the work environment. But we need to anticipate the changes as best we can, using what we do know about trends and developments, to ensure people are trained in the right skills.

All the researchers seem agreed on one thing: ‘soft’ skills are going to be key. Employees will need to show skills such as creativity, communication skills, emotional intelligence, active listening, empathy, people management and teamwork. Other abilities that will be in demand are critical thinking, complex problem solving, prioritisation, good judgement and decision-making.

Equally important in this Brave New World, people will need to demonstrate adaptability, flexibility and agility. The days of having a traditional career ladder are numbered, as job roles develop differently and become much less defined.

Some soft skills take years to develop and it is why schools are recognising the role they’ll be playing in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Writing about the 21st century skills that today’s students will need to acquire, Rachael Roberts said: “We need to make these underlying skills more explicit and noticeable so that our students can both become aware of and start to develop the skills that they need to succeed in the modern world.”

A Business Insider article makes a similar point about the importance of adaptability and says we are entering “a new era of talent”. Pointing to his own experiences, Greg Satell states: “Digital technology has profoundly changed the competitive environment. We can no longer afford to focus on predetermined sets of skills to perform routine tasks. Most of those jobs are now being automated. The value of human input lies in being able to think creatively to tackle problems that aren't routine. Clearly, we are entering in a new era of talent.

“It’s not as simple as bringing in ‘the best and the brightest’ any more. Today's marketplace is becoming increasingly complex and enterprises need to manage talent on multiple fronts, including not only employees, but also contract workers with specialised skills and partners across industries and in academic institutions.

“In order to integrate knowledge from a diverse set of fields, we need to move from a skills culture to a learning culture. Instead of looking to hire those who meet formal job specifications, we need to start developing people who can transcend them. In an age of disruption, the only viable strategy is to adapt.”

Are we ready for the changes?

Not yet. Some organisations still do not offer any business critical soft skills development as part of their learning programme. This has to change.  According to research by Towards Maturity, companies in the ‘Top Deck’ – those performing best in L&D terms when it comes to meeting their goals – are twice as likely to use digital learning in their soft skills training. Businesses will need to modernise their approach to soft skills development quickly, if they are to meet the huge challenges and demands ahead.

What happens next?

If the pundits are right about the future of jobs, then organisations  need to respond now to ensure that collectively we’re ready to maximise the opportunities of the future. And, as is evidenced across the globe, that future is already showing its face. Will it be smiling for you and your organisation? That probably depends on you taking a longer term view on your training needs.

Ask an expert

Liam O’Meara, Head of Sales & Marketing, Sponge UK

Liam has worked with some of world’s biggest brands to create programmes that embed leadership throughout the organisation by leveraging digital learning.

He has worked in a variety of sectors including pharmaceuticals, automotive, manufacturing, distribution and retail.

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