The Digital Future of Work: What Skills Will Be Needed?
Over the last two decades, computing power has grown to unprecedented levels, and there have been huge advancements in technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning, big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), and so on.
These advancements are rapidly changing the nature of the relationship between employment and technology.
These changes will bring huge benefits to the business environment, including increased levels of productivity, improved quality of products and services, and fewer errors.
Unfortunately, these benefits will come at a cost.
As machines become better at performing various tasks, they will increasingly take over many of the jobs that are currently needed by humans.
This means that workers will need to acquire a different set of skills if they are to remain in the workforce.
Today, machines are already conducting many of the tasks that were considered to be the preserve of humans.
They are writing news stories for news publications, reviewing patient medical data for doctors, mining data for lawyers, making sales calls, handling customer service, and even driving the vehicles on our streets.
As the technology grows and develops even further, machines will start encroaching on more human work activities, and many of the skills that are considered valuable today will become redundant.
According to a 2017 report by McKinsey, between 75 and 375 million workers across the world (about 14% of the global workforce) will need to retrain and acquire new skills within the next 10 years in order to adapt to new jobs that will emerge as the nature of work becomes increasingly digital.
For a kid who is currently in high school, figuring out what skills they need to acquire in order to increase their chances in the job market is becoming increasingly difficult.
Today, there’s far less predictability about the skills that will be in demand a few years down the line.
A few decades ago, a ten year old kid could say “I wish to pursue a career in this field,” and then go ahead to acquire the education and skills necessary to pursue that career.
Today, doing this is a huge bet, since there is a chance that the said career might not be viable by the time the kid is done with their education.
According to a report by the World Economic Forum, over 50% of the jobs that students who are currently in elementary school will work on once they become of working age are yet to be invented.
Already, a report by McKinsey shows that over 50% of the jobs in existence today can theoretically be automated using currently demonstrated technologies. This potential for automation brings with it the threat of massive automation.
So, what skills will one need in order to remain as part of the workforce in a workplace that is increasingly becoming digital?
Before answering this question, we need to understand the different types of human abilities, and the impact of machines on these human abilities.
TWO TYPES OF HUMAN ABILITIES
Human abilities can be divided into two categories: physical and cognitive abilities. In the past, humans made machines to help them with tasks that they considered to be physically taxing.
Therefore, even while machines and automation have been in existence for more than a century, they did not cause mass unemployment because they only took over physical jobs that needed no special skills.
For instance, anyone with the physical strength could work in a farm, because no special skills were needed.
Similarly, anyone with the physical strength could package and arrange merchandise in a warehouse without relying on any specialized skills.
When tractors and forklifts were introduced, they displaced a lot of people from such jobs because humans were no match for these machines (tractors and forklifts) in terms of raw physical strength.
While these machines displaced a lot of people from the physically demanding jobs, they did not cause mass unemployment because humans still had an edge over machines when it came to cognitive abilities.
These machines could not think or perform tasks that relied on reasoning, learning, decision making, and problem solving. As workers got displaced from physically demanding jobs, they took up the new service jobs that emerged, jobs that required cognitive abilities.
However, the machines (or rather engineers and developers) have not been resting. Having edged us out of jobs that relied on physical strength, machines and automation are now coming for jobs that require cognitive abilities.
Technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence have made it possible for machines to perform tasks that require abilities such as decision making, analyzing information, learning, reasoning, problem solving, and so on.
This foray of machines and automation into jobs that require cognitive abilities means they are now threatening to take over all types of jobs and not just the physical, low skill jobs. In a few years, you might find bankers, doctors, financial advisors, writers, developers, and several other jobs being taken over by machines.
With machines having edged us out of physical jobs and now coming for jobs that require cognitive abilities, we will soon have no other sphere where we can wield our dominance over them. So, what will humans do once machines have taken over all jobs?
While they are threatening to displace us from all sorts of jobs, it is important to keep in mind that machines cannot possibly do everything. Instead, this automation age will require collaboration between humans and machines.
Below, let’s take a look at some of the skills that will be needed in this digital future of work.
SKILLS THAT WILL BE NEEDED IN THE DIGITAL FUTURE OF WORK
As machines take over the mindless, routine and repetitive tasks that can be easily translated into algorithms, there will be increased demand for soft skills which are a lot harder for machines to acquire.
These are skills that revolve around applying expertise, communication, and interacting with and managing other people.
A study by the Foundation for Young Australians reports that majority of future jobs (70%) will need workers with non-industry specific soft skills that can be transferred between different industries, roles, and positions.
It’s also important to note that the traditional approach where young people got an education and acquired skills and then spent the rest of their lives applying these skills will no longer work in the digital future of work.
Workers of the future will need to keep learning new skills throughout their working lives.
As the requirements of different occupations change due to advances in technology and automation, workers will need to adapt by getting different types of training and acquiring new skills and credentials.
Only by doing this will future workers be able to remain relevant in the workforce.
While we cannot be absolutely certain what the future holds for the job market, some of the skills that are likely to be in high demand as work becomes increasingly digital include:
Digital Literacy Skills
As most types of jobs adopt digital technologies, there will be an increase in demand for digital literacy among workers.
Workers across various industries and a wide range of occupations will rely on generic ICT skills in order to use various technologies which will be part and parcel of their daily work.
Today, most jobs rely on ICT products and services – cloud computing and big data, various software programs, websites, ecommerce, and so on.
All these products and services need workers to have general ICT knowledge in order to use them.
Even occupations that were traditionally considered to be labor intensive, such as nursing and caring for the aged, will require the ability to work with sophisticated computer systems and operate complex machines.
As smart devices and home automation take root, even people such as electricians will need some generic ICT knowledge to understand these smart home systems and be able to connect them.
Basically, being digitally literate will be a threshold requirement for most jobs.
The digital transformation of work is also changing how work is carried out and therefore driving the increase in demand for ICT-complimentary skills, such as communication, the ability to process and analyze complex information, and the ability to plan in advance and make quick adjustments.
Various studies show that increased use of ICT systems at work often leads to less focus on physical work and more focus on problem solving and interaction between colleagues and clients.
As ICT transforms business models, there will be more demand for these ICT-complimentary skulls that are required to perform these tasks.
Creativity can be defined as the process through which we make new connections between seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts, transcend traditional approaches, and come up with something new and original.
The new thing could be an idea, a new solution, an object, new methods, you name it.
Creativity is one of the areas where humans will maintain an edge over machines. Machines are generally good at following rules and work within a structured environment.
They are told what to do, and then they do it exceptionally well.
Creativity, however, does not rely on rules and structure. Instead, creativity relies on thinking that is not constrained by well-defined rules, which is why machines are poor when it comes to creativity.
Therefore, as machines take up other jobs that rely on following rules and working within a structured environment, we can expect that there will be an increase in demand for highly creative individuals.
Enterprise and Entrepreneurial Skills
A lot of the productivity growth, innovation, and the new employment opportunities that are coming up in today’s business environment are driven by enterprise and entrepreneurs.
As the economy becomes increasingly digital, it is inevitable that there will be an increase in demand for workers with these capabilities.
Enterprise skills can be described as highly transferable skills that allow people to navigate within a complex world and successfully overcome any challenges they come across. These are skills that require a higher level of thinking.
Enterprise skills are already in high demand in a lot of jobs and have been shown to be a great predictor of long term job success.
Employees with enterprise and entrepreneurial skills have the ability to consider the current and future needs of their organizations and combine them with new approaches and methods to drive innovation within their organizations.
They are very optimistic and have a high risk appetite. Also referred to as intrapreneurs, these are the kind of workers who end up spawning “startup” cultures within their organizations.
As the future of work becomes increasingly digital, demand for workers with these skills will rise as businesses and organizations try to come up with new innovations to drive productivity and gain an edge over their competitors.
Critical thinking can be defined as the intellectual and logical process of skillfully and actively evaluating, analyzing, synthesizing, applying and/or conceptualizing information gathered or generated through experience, observation, communication, reflection, or reasoning.
The outcome of the critical thinking process is then used to solve problems, make decisions, or guide beliefs and action.
Very often, critical thinking requires that someone analyze constantly changing situations, consider different courses of actions and make decisions on how to proceed, while at the same time keeping in mind the repercussions of these decisions in a highly complex and dynamic world.
Despite all the progress in machine intelligence, people are still unwilling to leave such tasks to machines, especially in situations where making the wrong decision could have potentially disastrous outcomes.
Therefore, you can expect that demand for critical thinking skills will still be high even as the work becomes increasingly digital.
Much of the current advancement in technology has been driven by people within the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
As the nature of work becomes increasingly digital, there will be increased demand for more innovations and technological progress as more and more businesses start relying on automation to complete various tasks.
This technological progress and innovation will be spearheaded by workers with advanced STEM skills, and you can therefore expect that demand for these skills will remain high way into the future.
The convergence of social, mobile, analytics and cloud (SMAC) technologies is currently driving business innovation and disrupting the world.
As work becomes increasingly digital, these technologies will play a key role in improving business operations and helping businesses to effectively reach their customers with minimal cost.
Consider this: today, almost every business has an online presence.
Majority of people are accessing online services through mobile devices. Statistics already show that more users access the internet on mobile devices than on desktop.
The use of mobile devices, social media, smart devices and wearable technology is generating a stream of data that is birthing new business models.
Many businesses are also turning to cloud computing to make operations more efficient and develop new business models.
Moving into the future, SMAC technologies will become a core aspect of every business, driving demand for people with advanced SMAC skills.
Like we saw earlier, machines will take over the mindless, routine and repetitive tasks, freeing workers to focus on more important tasks, such as finding solutions to 21st century problems such as poverty, climate change, overpopulation, environmental degradation, and so on.
Coming up with solutions to these challenges will require people to work together and collaborate on unprecedented levels.
For such levels of collaboration to be possible, there will be a high demand for workers with excellent people skills, workers who have the ability to listen to others, communicate properly and facilitate productive dialogue, connect emotionally with their co-workers and effectively manage others, showing self-awareness, responsiveness and empathy.
These are skills that machines are yet to master.
Complex Problem Solving and Mental Flexibility
Over the next couple of years/decades, we will be marching into new territory.
For the first time ever, we will be living in a world where most aspects of our day to day lives will be reliant on technology.
Under such circumstances, it is inevitable that we will find ourselves having to tackle problems we have never come across before.
Coming up with solutions to these problems will call for workers the mental flexibility required to ditch conventional approaches and adopt new, unorthodox methods that are better suited for this new world.
What’s more, we are headed towards a future where things will change very rapidly.
New business models and approaches to business will come up and become obsolete within a few years. Novel ideas today will quickly become redundant as more ideas come up.
For businesses to survive and thrive in such a highly dynamic environment, they will need workers with the mental flexibility to quickly adapt to all these changes and figure out the best course of action to keep the business on top.
You can bet that there will be great demand for workers with this mental flexibility and the ability to solve complex problems in a constantly changing world.
While machines are exceeding some of our capabilities, they are only good at specialized tasks.
A program that was built to drive a vehicle will do it better than the average human, but it cannot do much else.
A program designed to help lawyers mine data might be exceptionally good at that task, but it cannot advice clients or represent them in court.
As machines become better and better at specialized tasks, jobs of the future will increasingly need workers who are knowledgeable in multiple disciplines.
Workers will be required to connect their knowledge from a wide range of fields and use these connections to develop innovative, out of the box solutions to new, unexpected problems.
THE ROLE OF EDUCATION IN PREPARING WORKERS FOR THE DIGITAL FUTURE OF WORK
The key to preparing young people for the digital future of work is transformation of education and training. Workers of the future will need high levels of knowledge and skills in multiple disciplines as well as continuous learning.
This calls for unconventional approaches to education and training.
As is stands today, we are using an educational system that was designed to mold a workforce for the industrial age. Unfortunately, we are no longer in the industrial age.
The old system of education placed a lot of focus on routine and fixed procedures and specialized knowledge.
Today, students spend a few years learning how to do something, and then go out and do this same thing for the rest of their working lives. This model was perfect for the industrial age because there was hardly any change for years, sometimes for decades.
However, this will not work in the digital future. Rather than placing the greatest focus on routine, fixed procedures and specialized knowledge, education that will shape the future workforce needs to place greater focus on continuous learning, development of transferable skills, as well as flexibility and the ability to adapt to a changing job environment.
Another problem with the current approach to education is that it views skills such as creativity and imagination as inborn skills that cannot be learnt.
The current education system also promotes the view that these skills are only useful in jobs that have been traditionally considered to be “creative”, such as the arts, and so on.
However, this view of creativity and imagination is wrong. Both these skills can be learnt and developed.
In addition, as machines become better than us at tasks that can be reduced into algorithms, creativity and imagination will become a requirement in almost all kinds of jobs of the future.
Therefore, the education system needs to undergo a transformation that will see more emphasis placed on these skills.
As the nature of most jobs become more and more digital, robots, machines, and AI systems will take up most of the tasks we get paid to do today.
This uptake of jobs by machines means that many of the skills that are in demand today will become obsolete.
To remain in the workforce, workers will need to develop new skills, skills that are better suited to the digital future of work.
Some of the skills that will be highly valuable in the digital future of work include digital literacy skills, creativity, enterprise and entrepreneurial skills, critical thinking, STEM and SMAC skills, people skills, complex problem solving and mental flexibility, as well as inter-disciplinary knowledge.
It is also good to note that preparing for the digital future of work requires a transformation in the education system to ensure that learners are equipped with skills that will help them remain value in this digital future of work.
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