The Future of Work Is Continuous Learning and Upskilling

Rob Biederman

While it’s far too simplistic to say that robots are stealing our jobs, artificial intelligence and machine learning have a profound impact on the way work gets done today. Emerging technologies are eliminating routinized jobs, while reshaping other jobs and creating whole new categories of work, leaving people to perform higher-functioning tasks.

For many workers, what they do today is likely not what they’ll be doing tomorrow. Decades ago, you could go to university, develop specific qualifications in accounting, for example, get certified and then work for an organization using that accounting skill set until you retired. Not so today. The job of accountant may no longer exist in a few years, replaced completely by automation. We now live in a world of continuous upskilling, where your credentials can be disrupted and rendered obsolete in a matter of a few years.

Jobs are bundles of tasks that organizations want done efficiently, no matter by technology or human beings. However, it’s the tasks within the jobs that are relevant for human workers. Completing tasks efficiently means having the right qualifications. Just as technology is transforming the tasks people perform, it’s also transforming the credentials people need to succeed in the workplace of today and tomorrow. The abilities you’ll need to thrive in the workplace today are changing faster than ever, and “skills obsolescence” will only accelerate as technology evolves.

Responsibility in Question

Who’s responsible for upskilling? This may be the biggest question we face at an individual and organizational level. Colleges, universities, vocational training institutions, adult education and HR/training departments used to be the traditional answers. But they may not be the best answers today.

The question goes even deeper. We don’t know what particular skills will be most in demand in the future (short and long term) and we don’t know the names of the job titles that may be needed in 10 years time. What we do know is that we had better learn how to remain relevant.

We’re confronted with a series of tough questions in the skills economy. How do you take responsibility for your own development in a world of change? How do you prioritize learning and stay up to date? How can your credentials continue to add value and remain viable to companies? Nobody outside of you can own these questions — not your university, not your employer, nor anyone else.

Our system of education has been slow to adapt to the new normal of the skills economy. Today, education must be continuing. Your capacity to learn, perhaps even more than what you learn, is what keeps you viable in today’s fast-changing workplace.

A Mistake Employers Often Make

Does having a degree from a prestigious university mean you’ll be employable all your life? No, because today’s hot area can be completely disrupted in a year or two. Employers have allowed themselves to believe that degrees are proxies for merit, training and the ability to learn, but that’s a mistake.

The U.K. government has gone so far as to create a name-blind recruitment strategy in which they remove the name of educational institutions from candidate resumes, in order to combat bias. A far higher premium should be placed upon whether a candidate can do the required tasks and has the capacity to upskill, rather than emphasizing where someone went to school. A degree and the capacity to upskill are two different things, and the latter is becoming more important.

It’s part of the education system’s role to provide students with a necessary skillset for their future careers, and helping students develop the capacity to learn is a primary component of that. While employees from great schools are intelligent, they sometimes lack the required knowledge to jump into a job. College doesn’t teach everything you need to know for the workplace, such as how to write customer emails, negotiate, get along in collaborative teams, manage others, or identify and develop new ideas. People are trained at work and that’s where they grow in confidence and in capabilities.

HR Challenges in an Uncertain World

HR leaders are challenged on many fronts, from finding the credentials their organization needs to developing the full capacities of the talent they already have. In light of rapid technological changes and accelerating “skills obsolescence,” what abilities will be needed tomorrow? HR can’t be sure.

Meanwhile, the gig economy is booming, enabling employers to bring in outside expertise for specific projects and tasks. But what’s the role of HR, if any, in developing on-demand talent? Generally, the contingent workforce develops and makes itself available to multiple organizations in a flexible way. The role of HR as organizations leverage on-demand talent remains an evolving question.

When HR looks at full-time employees, it knows that career and skills development are closely intertwined. But as we’ve seen, neither individual employees, HR nor the organization itself knows what qualifications will be needed in the future. Workforce planning is the ongoing, dynamic process of aligning your present and future business goals with the capabilities of your employees. You may have a brilliant business strategy, but it’s meaningless without the expertise to execute on it. Accessing and developing talent isn’t just an HR focus but a strategic focus. Again, though, which qualifications are needed?

There’s no simple, linear path or development checklist available that employees or HR can rely upon anymore to develop talent. Does this uncertainty create confusion and discomfort? Yes, for everyone involved. Employees denied promotion might get upset because they completed the checklist HR provided. Disengaged employees may be the result. HR must be as transparent as they can be with employees about what HR knows and (equally important) doesn’t know.

HR needs to examine its own biases too, especially around uncritically supporting a traditional system of higher education that may no longer be delivering the adaptable candidates that best serve employers. Increasingly, the people who thrive today have the capacity and curiosity to keep learning, possess the emotional intelligence to collaborate well with others, offer fresh ideas and perspectives that can come from diverse backgrounds and experiences and critically seek to disrupt the box.

Finally, employees need to take responsibility. HR is justified to say, “Here are the skills we think we’ll need in the future,” but employees must accept the inherent uncertainty of that claim and continue growing on their own. HR’s role is to provide the tools and support, but the employee needs to take personal responsibility for development. Honesty around shared responsibilities for qualifications and career development will be more important than ever for HR and employees in the face of uncertainty.

The Future of Learning

The question is whether we can nudge the education system to get better at providing both critical and practical knowledge to students, the qualifications that will enable them to keep learning far into the future. There is a massive gap between the huge demand for specialized skills and their scarce supply. As technology serves to accelerate “skills obsolescence,” that gap will only widen unless people and organizations prioritize continuous upskilling. Again, it often doesn’t matter what we learned yesterday; it’s the capacity to learn today and tomorrow that keeps us relevant.

In the end, the question of responsibility for upskilling doesn’t matter. It needs to happen. Whether it’s through higher education, HR, L&D or the individual, him or herself, one thing is certain — staying up to date with your skill-set will be a requirement to thrive in the future of work.

Learn more about the future of work by downloading the recording of the webinar, Enabling the Future of Work, featuring analyst Andrew Karpie from Spend Matters