How to bridge the skills gap

Miguel Milana / No Comments Share:
Welding robots work at a workshop of Chinese automaker Geely in Linhai, east China’s Zhejiang Province. With rapid advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies skills gaps across all industries are poised to grow. Xinhua

As new roles emerge and skills requirements change, the size of the existing pool of skilled workers is not going to be big enough to meet demand. So, what options do business leaders have? Miguel Milana tries to answer this question.

Skills gaps across all industries are poised to grow in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and other emerging technologies are happening in ever shorter cycles, changing the very nature of the jobs that need to be done – and the skills needed to do them – faster than ever before.

At least 133 million new roles generated as a result of the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms may emerge globally by 2022, according to the World Economic Forum. There will also be strong demand for technical skills like programming and app development, along with skills that computers can’t easily master such as creative thinking, problem-solving and negotiating.

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A short-term solution to filling these skills gaps would be for companies to pay a premium to acquire talent with skills in demand. But even if they can find people with the right skills and are happy to bear the cost, it will not help in a few years’ time when those new skills are no longer needed.

The point is that as new roles emerge and skills requirements change, the size of the existing pool of skilled workers just isn’t going to be big enough to meet demand. Today, for example, there is a massive shortage of people skilled in data science and AI. Companies won’t simply be able to fall back on hiring new employees as they attempt to future-proof their workforce.

So, what options do business leaders have now as they prepare for such a rapidly changing future?

Sizing up the problem

To address the problem, companies must invest more in enabling their workforce to reskill – starting now. Timing is critical. The World Economic Forum estimates that more than half (54 percent) of all employees will require significant reskilling by 2022, but the problem is likely to be even more acute in some regions. European Commission figures show that around 37 percent of workers in Europe don’t have even basic digital skills, not to mention the more advanced and specialised skills companies need to successfully adopt digital technologies.

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What is required is a holistic solution that prioritises new approaches to skills development within an existing workforce and in previously untapped talent pools. Such an approach would also help address the shared responsibility (with governments and education providers) of ensuring that the technological advances of the Fourth Industrial Revolution don’t increase economic inequality as lower-skilled workers find themselves out of a job.

Step up plans for workforce building

Although two-thirds of US hiring managers believe that implementing workforce development programmes will help them prepare for future disruptions or innovations, many businesses have been slow to do so. They are held back by budgetary constraints, lack of employee time to participate in training, and lack of appropriate training technology.

This inertia is hard to fathom, given the looming skills gap and the urgent need to develop a proactive response. As the skills gap widens, businesses that don’t take steps now to tackle the problem will be left behind. Business leaders need to look critically at the technical and “human” skills needed to future-proof their workforce, and move quickly to free up the resources needed to take the first steps towards building a culture of lifelong learning among their employees.

Harness technology to enable lifelong learning

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Companies can develop their own courseware for reskilling and upskilling employees. Several online learning platforms such as Coursera, Udacity and Udemy have promised to help businesses stay ahead of digital disruption by offering courses in areas including data science, machine learning and AI. Salesforce has developed its own free, gamified online learning platform, Trailhead, which allows users to take control of their own training and develop the skills they’ll need in the future.

The companies that are successful in workforce transformation will be able to “harness new and emerging technologies to reach higher levels of efficiency of production and consumption, expand into new markets, and compete on new products for a global consumer base composed increasingly of digital natives”, according to the World Economic Forum.

Swim outside your usual talent pools

Businesses must also develop new approaches to workforce development for those outside of traditional talent pools. By hiring people from diverse backgrounds, including young people, minority groups and those without a college education, businesses can tap into a huge pool of high-potential and underutilised talent.

Studies have confirmed the benefits of workforce diversity, which drives both innovation and results. According to a McKinsey report, companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.

In addition to adopting more inclusive hiring practices, businesses also need to think about how they provide training. Apprenticeships offering practical on-the-job training, in-house training programmes for non-college educated entry-level employees, and partnerships with external workforce development agencies, all play an important role when building a more diverse workforce.

Effective existing skills development programmes, like the Siemens Foundation’s Middle-Skill Initiative, work with young adults to close the ‘opportunity gap’ and build careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Another organisation, Year Up, provides training, support and meaningful work experience to nearly 4,000 young adults annually, with the aim of helping them fulfill their potential in higher education or kick-start a career.

Miguel Milana is president of Salesforce. This article first appeared in World Economic Forum.

 

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