In the last few years, the American workforce has been whipped up into a panic over the prospect of automation. However, Fast Company has reported on various surveys that assure readers most people will not, in fact, lose their jobs to robots (but parts of their jobs may be automated). In my experience as a futurist, and while researching a new book, Humanity Works, I’ve identified the issue we should be preparing for instead: how employees can develop the skills to serve as effective members of human/machine hybrid teams, and how they can work alongside the technology that will infiltrate aspects of every job in every industry.
The rise of applied technology skills
Once upon a time, a professional didn’t need to know anything about technology unless he or she worked for an IT firm or in an IT department. Now, however, all workers must be able to use available technology to sharpen their skills in critical thinking, decision-making, and problem-solving. They need to draw inferences from a variety of data sources, understand overall digital infrastructure and how it can drive process efficiency and improvement, and be familiar with technology interfaces and how to effectively collaborate with machines.
My research organization, the Career Advisory Board, which was established by DeVry University in 2010, has identified these abilities as applied technology skills (ATS). In other words, these are skills that integrate people, processes, data, and devices to understand how new technologies can effectively inform business strategy and react to unanticipated shifts in direction. Data analysis is an example of a highly desirable applied tech skill that has become essential in every industry and function.
For our recent technology skills gap research, the Career Advisory Board asked hiring managers, human resource professionals, and C-suite executives to reflect on the importance of ATS as well as the challenges they face in recruiting and retaining tech-savvy talent. Sixty-nine percent of survey respondents agreed with this statement: “When I interview a prospective candidate, the presence of applied technology skills and experience is a competitive differentiator.” And, the desire for leaders to have these skills is even greater: 76% of managers who hire senior-level candidates agreed.
Although our respondents reported that some areas require ATS more than others (half said operations and administration functions are most in need of them, followed by customer relations at 39%, and sales and business development at 36%), most respondents said that employees at large need to understand how to best use and integrate software systems to maximize business value.
Unfortunately, ATS are not always easy to come by in the American workforce. For one thing, most current professionals did not receive instruction in ATS from traditional education paths unless they focused on information technology. Technology is also evolving more quickly than in the past, so skill acquisition can’t happen all at once and must be sustained over a long period of time–and that can get expensive.
Fortunately, our survey revealed that despite these obstacles, most hiring managers are continuously training and retraining on ATS through internal courses and training (78%), tuition reimbursement for reskilling (35%) and external courses and training (31%). Only 25% said their organizations are taking no action to develop the ATS skillset.
If you hire employees and ATS hasn’t been on your radar, there are several actions you can take related to recruitment, skill identification, and employee development.
Starting with sourcing, consult with your IT leaders and C-suite about the best way to use social, mobile, and cloud technologies to uncover hidden sources of ATS talent. Combine internal referrals and external sourcing initiatives to create synergies between your jobs, candidates, and employees using vehicles like SwoopTalent.
You can also assess a job seeker’s contributions to online communities (like GitHub, Dribble, and Stack Overflow) to validate skill proficiency, and consider using outlets like oDesk (now Upwork) and TopCoder to recruit specific workers who have the exact skills you need for a job. Often, these individuals will come in with a combination of traditional skills and ATS and will be well positioned to help develop both in your overall workforce.
Tapping your current workforce
When it comes to identifying and developing ATS in your existing workforce, first lay out your business priorities and the required skills for each strategic position. Evaluate if the people in those positions are well equipped with the right ATS to do their jobs. Don’t assume that they do, even if they’re senior.
Next, conduct a training needs analysis to measure the skills against the employee’s level of existing knowledge and how much training would be required. This might include elements such as competency profiles, interviews, focus groups, and on-the-job observation, and you can use the results to determine the skills you have, the ones you need to hire for, and the training required for various groups.
Armed with this information, you can create appropriate training plans that you can execute with help from your employees with already strong ATS. Reward these individuals by promoting them into leadership roles and seek their guidance when assessing where human employees need to develop skills to keep pace with automation and other forms of artificial intelligence. Your goal should be to build a community of human workers who are comfortable with–instead of threatened by–technology advances.
Alexandra Levit is the author of the new book Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future (Kogan Page, October 2018). A partner at People Results, she helps Fortune 500 and government organizations and their leaders prepare for the future of work through proprietary research, consulting, and program development.