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Managing the Skills Crisis

Dirk Ercken/

"We live in a time with more change than any previous era in history. Almost every aspect of our lives will be fundamentally reshaped during the next two decades." -- John Peterson

Planning my move from the Nation’s Capital to Florida is a bittersweet experience. This could be my last posting as a Washingtonian, since future postings naturally will reflect the views of an outsider. Since I arrived in 1976, Washington’s go-go tempo and constant change have been addictive. Working with federal agencies since the Carter administration, I’ve been astonished by the innovations in government during the last four decades. Of course, the journey through new technologies, downsizings, reorganizations, peace dividends, shutdowns, and sequestrations was frustrating at times. Nonetheless, during good times and bad it was an honor to work with dedicated civil servants and military officers who faced change and made the difficult decisions. And today change is on steroids.

An Evolving Workplace

Most jobs that I’ve held in the last 50 years have changed radically or disappeared together. For example, the nuclear engineering Ph.D. I worked so hard to earn is near worthless today other than as a plaque on the wall. Millions of others already have or soon will face similar upheavals. By 2030, half of today’s jobs will be gone. That’s not a gloom-and-doom prediction, it’s a wake-up call for leaders (especially those in HR) who must build a workforce with the skills for tomorrow’s work. Our once exemplary school-to-work educational system is marginally adequate in that regard. Less than half of the new jobs will require a college degree or professional certification, but every position from now on will require workers to use digital information in making routine decisions.

Tomorrow’s Jobs

Will we run out of people who can do tomorrow’s jobs? Of course not. But it will be a challenge to find workers with the right skills. Basic engineering, sales, accounting, business and people management skills will always be needed, but consider how these advances will change even those core functions:

  • Asset Sharing. This new way of working and living is disrupting business models. New skills are needed for corporate sharing managers and shareability analysts who evaluate operations to identify shareable assets and administer sharing agreements.
  • Big Data. Social media, the Internet of Things, security systems and blogs are generating huge amounts of data that must be stored, interpreted and acted upon, which will require skills for opportunity identification, garbage-data reduction and privacy guardians.
  • Bio-Factories will produce seeds, substances and organisms that are too complex or too risky to grow in nature -- thus creating demand for urban agriculturalists, gene manipulators, plant monitors and treatment specialists.
  • Driverless Vehicles. Within 10 years, autonomous vehicles will deliver groceries, packages and people virtually anywhere. But will today’s professional drivers have the skills required to dispatch deliveries, analyze traffic, operate drones or restore order when things go awry?
  • Avatars. Robotics and social media are merging in two-dimensional avatars and mobile robots that will be nearly indistinguishable from humans, which will create the need for virtual reality architects and avatar relationship managers.

How will these advances affect what your organization does, how that work gets done, your career and the skills required in your workforce?

Will Your Workforce Be Ready? 

Most organizations respond well to the impact of emerging technologies on products and services, but few adequately consider the impact on their workforce. The effects of new technologies on the workforce are barely noticeable in the short term, yet they gradually erode productivity in organizations that cut their training program -- or don’t have one to begin with. Workers are running a race between education and technology, and in many cases they are falling behind. The chasm between governmental policies that aim to preserve existing jobs and the private sector’s use of technology to improve productivity and reduce payroll costs is an economic paradox that is not widely recognized.

A Skills Apocalypse?

Systems thinking, problem analysis and teamwork skills are essential for success, but are rare in the curricula of today’s corporate training programs and formal educational systems. Technology is dividing people and organizations into two groups: winners who are proficient in technology and losers who are replaced by it. The first group is prospering, while the second gradually declines or finds themselves underemployed. Which group will you and your organization fall into?

Dick Stieglitz is a business consultant, author and speaker who works with companies and government agencies to change the way they do business. His books include Taming the Dragons of Change. This post first appeared in his newsletter The Change Challenge.

(Image via Dirk Ercken/

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