So far, everybody agrees there is a problem, but nobody has the solution. The problem is a rate of economic change that renders individual workers obsolete - and in aggregate, a large chunk of the work force. It's a global problem, some say the global problem.
But governments are too slow, too distant, too blunt to take the lead in dealing with it. So what's the answer - or realistically, a start toward an answer?
Take a look at Career Builder, an interactive self-assessment program recently installed by Barclays Bank in the United Kingdom. The system was created by Renaissance Strategy Group, a consulting firm whose principals include David Norton, a founder of information-technology specialists Nolan, Norton & Company, and Harry Lasker and David Lubin, two pioneers in multimedia education. Career Builder is part information sharing, part reality therapy, part personal change program. John Mills, the Barclays manager who is responsible for making it work, calls the system "a guided tour on how to get to the new world."
Career Builder won't win any Hollywood awards for high-tech glitz. But it does offer people a no-nonsense way to find out how the bank views its future - and how they should think about theirs. The system, delivered via multimedia workstations, begins with a 10-minute tour of the changes reshaping banking and how Barclays is changing its business.
Then the program takes on the air of a consultant's presentation, laying out the facts of life about future jobs and career paths. For example, Career Builder tells managers in the MIS department that one-dimensional job titles such as "applications development manager" or "systems analyst" will vanish. Instead, Barclays will need well-rounded technologists with titles such as "business modeler" or "lead business architect."
But the heart of Career Builder is its interactivity. Users rate their talents against a long list of professional and managerial skills and match those skills against a roster of future jobs at the bank. This evaluation exercise, which takes about an hour, tallies people's strengths and weaknesses, lays out a course of training, and even suggests alternative career paths.
Career Builder is still in the experimental stage; fewer than 100 people in two of the bank's technology departments have used it so far. But it's already generating attention both inside and outside the bank. Managers from about a dozen global companies have traveled to London to see the system. Meanwhile, people at Barclays are both intrigued and worried. "The main message comes through clearly," says John Mills. "Our world is changing. Who isn't threatened by that?"
Career Builder may prove as economically beneficial to the bank as it does to its individual users. According to David Norton, costs for recruiting and integrating a new worker can run as high as 25% of that person's first-year salary. Norton estimates that Career Builder only costs about $1,000 per person.
Perhaps most important, in the search for a response to change, Career Builder treats workers and managers like adults. It tells them that the world is changing. And it challenges them to take the initiative to prepare themselves for whatever comes in the future. Which may turn out to be the only real way to move into the future - one company, one worker at a time.
Tom Kiely is senior writer at CIO, a magazine for executives about technology.
A version of this article appeared in the Prototype Issue issue of Fast Company magazine.