Technology and societal change are two major hallmarks of industrial revolutions. You cannot discuss the first industrial revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, for example, without referencing steam power and the migration of the workforce from the country to the city. The same goes for the third industrial revolution, which can’t be mentioned without reference to the internet and rapid globalisation.
Today, as the increasing influence of AI/automation and the decentralisation of labour push the world toward the fourth industrial revolution, it’s become clear that each of these epochs shares a common characteristic: they have all accelerated the rise and fall of demand for specific skills.
Over the past 100 years or more, the length of these cycles has dropped from decades to a matter of years. This is creating one of the biggest employability challenges for businesses and individuals alike moving forward, as they both seek to ensure they are attuned to the demands of today’s work.
Companies must fundamentally change the way they view skills, training and career development to stay abreast of this change. This isn't just another story about technology creating as many jobs as it invalidates: they must consider how existing roles will evolve and how people in at-risk jobs can transition into roles where they work alongside technology and continue to add value on top of it.
Challenging the structure of education
For many years it has made sense for careers to follow a linear path. From early to later education, skills are gradually narrowed down and refined to serve a particular niche, with a particular job role serving as the end objective. The reason this particular ‘pyramid’ style of education has worked is because it could be mapped out to longer cycles in the demand for specific roles, which may have lasted for a generation or more.
Today, the demand for – and turnover of - skills is cycling faster than ever before, and will continue accelerating in the years ahead. This not only poses a problem for linear structures of education and career development, but on an individual level, challenges the long-held association between our jobs and our identities. Jobs give us purpose, and job roles provide a pathway for us to achieve that purpose. So happens when skills fall out of demand, and our pathway to fulfilment stops short?
The looming professional identity crisis
This is one of the main topics tackled by Heather E. McGowan and Chris Shipley in their indispensable guidebook to the future of work, The Adaptation Advantage. The authors describe how identities typically carry a permanent professional stamp, i.e., ‘teacher’, ‘plumber’ or ‘politician’. This, they argue, “is the barrier to making the crossing from the past of work to the future of work. But cross we must because the future is coming at us faster than we can understand it.”
The first step toward overcoming this barrier is to direct our educational and professional development away from specific roles and instead focus our efforts on improving our overall adaptability. Of course, each role will have a set of transferable and non-transferable skills, but there is little precedent today for knowing which is which. Identifying skills which sit across
different roles, means employees can more easily move laterally into new roles as and when it is necessary for them to do so.
A new imperative of responsibility for employers
The burden of responsibility for ensuring adaptability may seem to lie with employees, but in reality this imperative applies equally (if not more) to employers. Having the right skilled employees working in-house will still contribute significantly to a company’s competitiveness, but keeping abreast of demand for new skills by constantly hiring new talent is both a costly and unsustainable strategy. Instead, companies must look inward to retrain, retrain and redeploy existing employees in those in-demand roles.
An effective method of identifying which employees should be reskilled is by creating an inventory of skills, taking into account those which are most valuable and those which sit across multiple roles. This not only effectively eliminates the unpleasant nature and cost of employee redundancies, but by looking at how individual processes translate to value, helps companies eliminate bloated processes and release capacity, simultaneously making roles both more relevant and more efficient.
Carving out the path ahead
Change can often be met with resistance, and particularly during periods of uncertainty. Fear of the unknown is an instinct which keeps us alive and out of danger, but we cannot sit back and let it block the path to the future.
We must instead focus on enhancing a very different human instinct – adaptation – to move forward. It is a constant trait of humankind that allows us to thrive and remain resilient, even in the event of sudden changes in the environment.
For employers and employees alike, adaptation must take the form of reskilling, which is needed to realise the future of work. All it takes is the will to do things differently.