Job roles and career paths have evolved steadily over the past century. Occupations we could never have imagined 50 or even 15 years ago are now commonplace. Bloggers, podcast producers, mobile app developers, data scientists, scrum practitioners and cloud architects are all 21st-century professions that are consequences of invention. Given the speed with which these roles emerged, finding people with the proficiencies needed to fill them is sometimes challenging.
Both upskilling and reskilling have been part of the workplace lexicon for years, as organizations recognized that success is underpinned by employees – and potential employees – with optimal competencies and expertise. The progression of skill development has not always been smooth. The pervasiveness of technology and automation, changing demographics and even the global response to climate change has widened the skills gap more than ever, but has also created unprecedented opportunity for a transformed workplace of the future.
An IBM Institute for Business Value study released in fall 2019 reported that, over the next three years, as many as 120 million workers in the world’s 12 largest economies could need to be retrained or reskilled as a result of artificial intelligence and intelligent automation. However, only 41 per cent of CEOs surveyed indicated they have the people, skills and resources required to execute their business strategies. Mix in a global pandemic and the issue becomes even more pressing.
COVID-19 has caused widespread job loss, increased dependence on technology and unparalleled disruption of the workplace. An October, 2020, report from the World Economic Forum predicted that 85 million jobs will be displaced by 2025 and 54 per cent of all employees will require significant reskilling and upskilling by 2022. On the flip side, more than 97 million new roles could emerge in the next four years as global business and industry recalibrates in response to what becomes the new normal.
If these numbers are accurate, significant commitment to and investment in upskilling and reskilling in key in-demand areas, such as data science and AI, must be prioritized. We need to plan to accommodate for jobs that do not yet exist. That is how rapidly things are moving.
An evolving economy demands an evolved work force
In its throne speech last fall, the Government of Canada expressed its commitment to helping Canadians gain access to training as the country moves through its postpandemic recovery, pledging to make the “largest investment in Canadian history in training for workers.” The government also tabled legislation that would set binding climate targets to get Canada to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. These two acts are inextricably linked as the success of one relies on that of the other. An economy built on more sustainable practices cannot be achieved without a work force to support it. There is a breadth of skills needed to fill the gap, and they can be broadly categorized as follows.
Knowledge-based skills: Broader expertise is in demand more than ever, especially in a greener economy. Government and organizations need employees who can understand, analyze and implement climate policies, who provide financing and budgeting direction, who have geographical, ecological and agricultural expertise, and whose numerous other skills can be categorized as knowledge-based.
Technical skills: Science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) expertise is critical for the development of advanced innovation such as AI and quantum computing, but also in areas such as data science, engineering, manufacturing and research. Technological innovation is a key driver in the battle to overcome climate change. And with its rapid advancement, incessant technical skill development is needed.
Soft skills: These should be considered foundational as they are what we use to develop all other skills. In my opinion, the criticality of soft skills is often underestimated. Intangible abilities in areas such as critical thinking, consensus building, leadership, motivation, effective communication and social currency are the lubricant that enables the successful execution of other skills.
Development of certain skills should not be undertaken in isolation and to the exclusion of others. As the future of work evolves through a greener economy, we must encourage upskilling and reskilling in a manner that will enable a more resilient and agile work force.
Claude Guay is the president of IBM Canada. He is the leadership lab columnist for January 2021.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.
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