For the past 150 years, work has been characterized by “skill stability.” The social pact in most developed economies was characterized by a “learn, do, and retire” model that covered an average life span of 65 years. Workers could rely on the fact that an educational or technical training investment—from accounting to zoo keeping—combined with a relatively modest effort to keep skills up-to-date, would provide a 30-year return in salary, advancement, and opportunity.
Rampant digitization and the democratization of work, not to mention increased life expectancy, have rendered this agreement obsolete. The World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs” report estimates that by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labor between humans and machines, while 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labor between humans, machines, and algorithms. These forces are creating demand for new skills and shrinking the half-life of many technical skills that have been the foundation for the “good jobs” of the past. These changes will require a new mindset: one of “learn then do; learn then do, rest; learn then do” in a continuous cycle. From these transformations a new, “perpetual reinvention” pact is emerging. So, how do we get started with our revolution? I offer a few ideas.
Moving beyond job descriptions
In virtually every organization, the legacy currency of work (the job) masks today’s needed legal tender (the skills). Historically, job descriptions and titles have been the basis for defining work, deploying talent, and determining compensation. All within the closed ecosystem that is the organization. Today’s pressing reality is that a “job” (no matter how well-defined) can’t adequately capture how the demand for various skills is changing, as automation and ways of working multiply.
Even though 53% of organizations are identifying new skills needed for a post-COVID world, only 14% have implemented skills-based talent strategies, such as a skills framework, according to a “Global Talent Trends” study by investment firm Mercer, where I lead the organization’s transformation services. The same study indicated that only 1 in 3 HR professionals know the skills of their organization and just 9% of companies formally monitor market demand and availability of skills. This murkiness presents a real and present danger for companies and workers if we continue to rely on outdated workforce standards.
Essential to overcoming the opaque relationship between jobs and skills is deconstruction. It’s like taking a flower apart to the atomic level. The flower is pretty in the vase, but stripped down to its atomic makeup, you begin to understand why it’s pretty.
If you want to do better than just survive the skills revolution and power your own journey of perpetual reinvention, job deconstruction is critical. This entails the following steps:
- Breaking a job down to its component tasks
- Analyzing how emerging technologies or alternative work options like gig-worker marketplaces may have a competitive advantage in performing these tasks
- Understanding how digitization may create demand for new tasks (and skills)
Understanding how work is changing is essential to gaining insight into the changing demand for skills. As new work options like AI, gig workers, and automation are incorporated, some skills are rendered obsolete, others are changed in their application, and new skills are demanded.
A new reality for companies
This transformation is calling for a radical rethink of the role of reskilling (not training), relative to the other aspects of the employee experience at companies. From being the first expense that is slashed during a downturn, reskilling has increasingly become one of the most pivotal elements of the employee experience and companies’ business strategies. For example, AT&T created 50 training programs designed to prepare individuals for technical careers, which are distinctively relevant to AT&T’s future workforce and digital strategies. These programs include courses in web and mobile development, data science, and machine learning. To date, AT&T has spent over $200 million per year on this internal training curriculum. In return, the program has achieved over 4,200 career pivots with 70% of jobs filled internally by those who were reskilled.
It takes a village
By 2025, 50% of all employees will need reskilling to ensure their continued relevance, according to the World Economic Forum. Beyond the change to an individual’s mindset and behavior, addressing the significant volume, velocity, and variability of reskilling needed for the new world of work will require a collaborative approach across companies, governments, and the educational sector.
As illustrated in PBS’s current documentary series, Future of Work, in which I am featured, the disruptions within and across industries will result in significant dislocation and require talent transitions across industries. It will be essential that the reskilling revolution avoid furthering or introducing new inequalities by limiting access to reskilling to a privileged few. France’s “MySkillsAccount” program attempts to avoid just that. Under the governmental program, individuals receive skills accounts integrated with a mobile app dedicated to vocational training and lifelong learning. Under the program, 28 million eligible full-time and part-time workers receive around $950 annually directly into their skills account to spend on upskilling and continuous learning, with low-skilled workers and those with special needs also receiving up to about $950 annually, capped at a total of around $6,000 and $9,450, respectively.
The reskilling revolution has the opportunity to address many of the challenges brought about by the future of work. But it is not a spectator sport. To move from our legacy of jobs to one based on skills, all of us across society will need to work collaboratively, think innovatively, and perpetually reinvent ourselves.
Ravin Jesuthasan is the global leader of Mercer’s transformation services business and an expert featured on the PBS documentary series the Future of Work.