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Future of Jobs

A January 2016 World Economic Forum report entitled The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, authored by Till Alexander Leopold, Vesselina Ratcheva and Saadia Zahidi, presents an interesting picture of the “future labour market from the perspective of some of the worlds’s … 100 largest global employers.”[1. Background on the report’s contributors, Till Alexander Leopold, Vesselina Ratcheva and Saadia Zahidi, is presented on page 145 of the document.] Part I of the report “touches, first, on the expected trends, disruptions and drivers of change transforming business models in every industry, with far-reaching implications for skills, jobs and the nature of work.  It then reviews the expected effects on employment levels and skills profiles in different job families, industries and geographies.”   Part II of the report presents findings “through an industry, regional and gender gap lens.”  The industry sectors including basic and infrastructure, consumer, energy, financial services, healthcare, information and communication technology, media entertainment and information, mobility, and professional services.[2. See Table B1 – Classification of Industries of Appendix B: Industry and Regional Classifications.]

The authors state that “technological, socio-economic, geopolitical and demographic developments and the interactions between them will generate new categories of jobs and occupations while partly or wholly displacing others.”  These developments and interactions will “change the skill sets required in both old and new occupations in most industries and transform how and where people work, leading to new management and regulatory challenges.”  Representing a conclusion that may be somewhat surprising to some readers, “demographic and socio-economic shifts are expected to have nearly as strong an impact on business models and organizational structures as technological change.”

The rank ordering (highest to lowest) of demographic and socio-economic drivers of change, in terms of share of survey respondents’ mentions as a top trend were as follows:

  • Changing nature of work, flexible work
  • Rising middle class in emerging markets
  • Climate change, natural resources
  • Geopolitical volatility
  • Consumer ethics, privacy issues
  • Longevity, aging societies
  • Young demographics in emerging markets
  • Women’s economic power & aspirations
  • Rapid urbanization.

Drivers of change with respect to technology were:

  • Mobil internet, cloud technology
  • Processing power, Big Data
  • New energy supplies & technologies
  • Internet of Things
  • Sharing economy, crowdsourcing
  • Robotics, autonomous transport
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Advanced manufacturing, 3D printing
  • Advanced materials, biotechnology.

The report also presents the anticipated employment effects of the above drivers of change over the 2015 – 2020 time period across 10 “job families” as well as the aforementioned industries.[3. See Table 4 on page 12 of report with respect to impact by job family and Table 5 on page 16 of report regarding impact by industry.]   Computer and mathematical and architecture and engineering job families appear well poised to benefit from the drivers of change – not so office and administrative jobs. Industries characterized favorably include information and communication technology, professional services and media / entertainment / information.  Important regional impact differences are noted within the report.

With respect to new and emerging job categories the authors note that “two jobs (favorably) stand out due the frequency and consistency with which they were mentioned across practically all industries and geographies.  The first are data analysts … which companies will expect will help them make sense and derive insights from the torrent of data generated by technological disruptions.  The second are specialized sales representatives, as practically every industry will need to become skilled in commercializing and explaining their offerings to business or government clients and consumers, whether due to the innovative technical nature of the the products themselves, due to their being targeted at new client types with which the company is not yet familiar, or both.  Other (favorably-impacted) new specialties frequently mentioned include new types of human resources and organizational development specialists, engineering specialties such as materials, bio-chemicals, nanotech and robotics, regulatory and government relations specialists, geospatial information systems experts and commercial and industrial designers.”  With respect to declining roles, the authors state that “customer service roles will become obsolete due to mobile internet technology’s (ability) to monitor service quality online as a means of maintaining effective customer service relationship management.”

As a statement jointly reflective of the pace and educational challenges associated with these disruptions the authors note, referencing one popular estimate, that “current technological trends are bringing about an unprecedented rate of change in the core curriculum content of many academic fields, with nearly 50% of subject knowledge acquired during the first year of a four-year technical degree outdated by the time students graduate. … On average, by 2020, more than a third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations (emphasis added) will be comprised of skills that are not yet considered crucial to the job today.”  With respect to particular industry impacts, the authors state that “the highest level of skills stability over the 2015-2020 period is found in the Media, Entertainment and Information sector, already profoundly transformed in recent years, while the largest amount of skills disruption is expected to occur in the Financial Services & Investors industry.”

I find it rather fascinating that, within this context, the authors contend that “social skills – such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others – will be in higher demand across all industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control.  Content skills (which include Information and Communication Technology (ICT) literacy and active learning), cognitive abilities (such as creativity and mathematical reasoning) and process skills (such as active listening and critical thinking) will be a growing part of the core skills requirements for many industries.”

Recognition, prioritization and collaboration with respect to re-skilling and retraining efforts will prove crucial to successfully addressing the challenges presented by the disruptive forces.  The authors emphasize that a combination of improved cognitive abilities, basic skills and cross-functional skills will be required to meet the demand of businesses noting that “cognitive abilities take much longer to develop and touch upon the need for high quality and inclusive secondary, primary and pre-school education.”  The report recommends that governments innovate education and training-related policy making and suggests that “the education and training sector will encounter vast new business opportunities in providing services to individuals, entrepreneurs, large corporations and the public sector.”  

The authors further suggest that businesses: (a) put talent development front and center; (b) reinvent the HR function to employ analytical tools “to spot talent trends and skill gaps and provide insights that help organizations align their business, innovation and talent management strategies”; (c) embrace workforce diversity; and (d) leverage flexible working arrangements and online talent platforms.

From a longer term perspective, Leopold, Ratcheva and Zahidi recommend: (a) re-thinking education systems where “businesses work closely with governments, education providers and others to imagine what a true 21st century curriculum might look like”; (b) incentivizing lifelong learning to provide the “time, motivation and means for individuals to seek retraining opportunities”; and (c) taking more of a collaborative rather than competitive view of this issue to “create multi-sector partnerships that facilitate scalable solutions to jobs and skills challenges.”