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The key to solving the UK tech skills shortage lies in changing our understanding of work itself

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Duncan Andison)

In 1975, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore predicted that computing power, speed and efficiency would grow exponentially year upon year, whilst also becoming more affordable. Known today as Moore’s Law, this time-proven theory explains how and why technological development has continually accelerated since the dawn of the computer age - to the point where the time between major technological eras has been cut from generations to a matter of years.

However, we are now reaching the stage where new technology is being developed and adopted faster than the skills needed to use them can be learned and applied. As a recent McKinsey report finds:

“The adoption of automation, along with technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things, is likely to unleash profound structural shifts in the UK workforce—which will be amplified by other megatrends such as the aging population.”

The report outlines two major looming issues facing the UK economy: a widening skills gap and an increase in redundancies due to employees lacking the required skills to fill these new jobs. For employers and employees alike, tackling both of these issues will require a major reconsideration of career development – one which takes into consideration the increasingly transient nature of demand for skills.

To keep up, companies must fundamentally change the way they view skills, training and career development so they are positioned to maximize the opportunity presented by this change. This isn't just another story about technology creating as many jobs as it invalidates: they must consider how existing roles will evolve and how people in at-risk jobs can transition into roles where they work alongside technology and continue to add value on top of it.

Re-envisaging education

For almost half a century, it has made sense for careers to follow a linear path. From early to later education, skills are gradually narrowed down and refined to serve a particular niche, with a particular job role serving as the end objective. The reason this particular ‘pyramid’ style of education has worked is because it could be mapped out to longer cycles in the demand for specific roles, which may have lasted for a generation or more.

Today, the demand for – and turnover of - skills is cycling faster than ever before, and will continue accelerating in the years ahead. This not only poses a problem for linear structures of education and career development, but on an individual level, challenges the long-held association between our jobs and our identities. Jobs give us purpose, and job roles provide a pathway for us to achieve that purpose. So what happens when skills fall out of demand, and we fall short of fulfilling that very purpose?

Disentangling work from personal identity

In their indispensable guidebook, The Adaptation Advantage, Heather E. McGowan and Chris Shipley take on this topic head on. The authors describe how identities typically carry a permanent professional stamp, i.e., ‘teacher’, ‘plumber’ or ‘politician’. This, they argue, “is the barrier to making the crossing from the past of work to the future of work. But cross we must because the future is coming at us faster than we can understand it.”

The first step toward overcoming this barrier is to direct our educational and professional development away from specific roles and instead focus our efforts on improving our overall adaptability. Of course, each role will have a set of transferable and non-transferable skills, but there is little precedent today for knowing which is which. Identifying skills which sit across different roles, means employees can more easily move laterally into new roles as and when it is necessary for them to do so.

Who should take responsibility for change?

Adaptability may be perceived as an attribute that employees must possess, but in reality it’s an attribute that is equally (if not more) essential for employers. Having the right skilled employees working in-house will still contribute significantly to a company’s competitiveness, but keeping abreast of demand for new skills by constantly hiring new talent is both a costly and unsustainable strategy. Instead, companies must look inward to retain, retrain and redeploy existing employees in those in-demand roles.

An effective method of identifying which employees should be reskilled is by creating an inventory of skills, taking into account those which are most valuable and those which sit across multiple roles. This not only effectively eliminates the unpleasant nature and cost of employee redundancies, but by looking at how individual processes translate to value, helps companies eliminate bloated processes and release capacity, simultaneously making roles both more relevant and more efficient.

Adapting our understanding of ‘work’

If you take a keen interest in technology and the economy, you may well have come across the term ‘fourth industrial revolution’. This moniker has become a common label for the current period in which intelligent technologies such as AI, automation and robotics are becoming commonplace in our daily lives, and completely changing the nature of work.

But as previous industrial revolutions have proven time and time again, change can often be met with resistance. This is particularly true today when the increasing availability and adoption of AI and automation are accelerating the capability for technology to take over jobs formerly held by humans is greater than ever before. The world of work is evolving at an unprecedented pace. Dynamic forces such as Covid-19, AI and remote working are rapidly evolving, complex topics that are fundamentally reshaping how and where we work. Most private and public sector leaders appreciate the need to act, but few have access to the data or insights needed to chart an effective path.

We cannot sit back in our comfortable status quo position when we know that doing so could block the path to a more prosperous future. We should instead focus on enhancing a very different human instinct – adaptation – to move forward. It is a constant trait of humankind that allows us to thrive and remain resilient, even in the event of sudden changes in the environment.

Employers and employees alike must revise their understanding of what a ‘job’ entails, and prioritize both enhancing and encouraging adaptability. Reskilling is essential to realize the immense potential of the future of work. All it requires is a willingness to do things differently.

James McCleod, EMEA Director, Faethm AI

James McLeod is the EMEA Director of Faethm AI, the world’s data source for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Future of Work.