We’re seeing a perfect storm in the employment market today. We’ve got a digital economy growing ever more rapidly in a still largely bricks and mortar world; potential restrictions on labour movement as Brexit and other discussions continue; an ageing population; a shrinking labour force; and a crisis in education, with a scramble to develop a curriculum fit to equip a digital workforce.
And this is all as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution – an era of technology-led disruption and innovation, heralded by the 5G revolution and digital connectivity, which will open up business and collaboration opportunities that we can't yet imagine. The challenge for businesses today is where to find the workers they need to make these opportunities a reality!
Digital connectivity will advance the world
This Fourth Industrial Revolution is all about digital connectivity. It’s about networks and systems that blur the line between the digital and the physical. It’s about 5G enabling technologies like 3D printing; the Internet of Things; artificial intelligence (AI); advanced robotics; autonomous vehicles; wearable devices; and virtual and augmented reality. These services offer digital connectivity at a whole new level, which will enable people, businesses and communities to do some amazing things. The possibilities are immense.
But like any era of technological breakthroughs, the Fourth Industrial Revolution also presents its own challenges and hard questions. For example, what will advanced automation mean for the human workforce? Where will we find the virtual reality (VR), robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) experts we need to build the future? These are subjects that are not readily taught in school.
And will ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ technologies actually create more jobs than they displace? It’s clear already that automation and various applications of AI are displacing jobs at an exponential rate — not only labour-intensive jobs but knowledge economy jobs as well. McKinsey & Co predict that by 2030, 800 million jobs will be lost, from low-wage manufacturing jobs in developing economies to insurance brokers in Japan and financial analysts in the US.
A tipping point
The Fourth Industrial Revolution will be a critical lever to creating a better world and connectivity has a crucial role to play in unlocking the potential of humans, businesses and society to do more “new” and more good – while leaving no one behind. 5G-enabled, advanced digital connectivity is a liberating and empowering force for human beings.
However, irrespective of these opportunities, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will also bring job displacement – and the impact of this at the individual level is well-documented. Researchers have attributed negative economic, physical and mental health impacts, intergenerational consequences and knock-on effects in communities to job loss – negative effects that are only partially offset by re-employment. Perhaps this is no different than the hardships endured in previous economic cycles of redundancy and job displacement. However, the magnitude and the rate of change forecast are unprecedented. The risks of economic and societal dislocation are significant, while our preparedness is minimal.
So, the challenge for businesses right now is how they can staff for the future, in the world of today. This really requires looking differently at how we approach recruitment and talent management and how we think about our talent pool. If there aren’t enough people with the skills we need ‘out there’, we need to create them ourselves. A large proportion of the workforce will need to be redeployed. We need to work out how to turn coal miners into coders, and adopt larger-scale, sustainable approaches to managing displaced workers. We also need to remember that our people are human, and that change is disruptive. We need to ensure that people continue to feel valued, even as their world of work transforms around them. We need to look at upskilling, reskilling, lifelong learning and much more – or we will fail.
There are several strategies that can be adopted to help accommodate this fast-changing world.
Balance equals success
Firstly, diversity. It’s an acknowledged fact around the world today that improving workforce diversity, and particularly gender diversity, is a business imperative. Statistics show that girls are typically outperforming boys at school and university, yet this success is still not translating into equal presence in the workforce – and particularly not at senior levels of business.
All established businesses today must work towards a diverse, gender- and age-balanced workforce. It’s critical to their success, not least as digital technologies are not only dramatically changing how, where, and with whom the business of business is conducted, they are also changing the skillset required to conduct business. In the context of an ageing workforce, and a shrinking labour pool, this presents a real challenge.
A diverse workforce helps you to better understand your customers, and their own diverse perspectives. In a global marketplace, insights and cultural sensitivity gained from those with roots in other countries or cultures can be invaluable. A diverse workforce also enables you to benefit from a wide range of thoughts and ideas which can fuel innovation – the lifeblood of the digital economy. And having different perspectives on a problem – born of different life experiences – will produce different solutions.
Added to this, there is a significant body of research that shows that a better gender balance equates to business success. As the digital economy continues to grow, competition is only going to increase, and any incremental benefit to the bottom line will be welcomed.
Reskill and stay agile
The second key consideration is reskilling. If we can’t recruit the skills we need, we need to develop them ourselves. Lifelong learning is the answer – and organisations that embrace this, and enable it for their teams, will be best placed for success. The byword for the future will be relevance; we need to continue to develop the skills and mindset that will enable our employees to engage in the digital economy. In the longer term, we also need to build agility; the ability for our employees to flex and grow as our business does.
Finally, we need to look at encouraging returners. All around the globe, there is a huge untapped skill pool of people who have left the workplace for family or social reasons. We need to get them back! Developing returner policies ensures that we do not lose investments already made in our people. We can look at transferability of skills, reap the benefit of real-life experience, and recognise that everyone can learn new skills – not just graduates, or school leavers.
Adapting to the new world
Today, the digital economy IS the economy – it enables new ecosystems, makes new business models possible and opens up new ways to interact and engage with customers. But the digital economy is inherently different to the ‘established’ economy. Many established businesses today have foundations that were built in the last century, and the corporate world is still primarily defined by the baby boomers - a group which entered the workforce before mobile phones, personal computers and the Internet even existed.
This is why we need to work together to engender change. We need HR teams to understand the benefits of diverse teams, and to be willing to work harder to find diverse candidates. We need to facilitate teams to create office spaces which are welcoming for all generations. We need IT teams to give multiple technology options to suit different working styles. We need business leaders to ensure that all of this is a priority, rather than a ‘nice to do at some point in the future’.
Solving the challenge of the future digital workforce will tackle these emerging social risks, but also represents a tremendous opportunity to mobilise a valuable workforce. Actively helping displaced workers transition and succeed in new roles will be the critical imperative for businesses in the future. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a time of change – but change that opens up opportunities for us all. I’m excited about what the future holds.
Dyanne Lerardo, Senior Leader Human Resources, Verizon