Employing people

A business case for reskilling teams

Woman in audience raising her hand

Seventy-five million jobs are at risk of being replaced by automation technologies by 2022.

Seventy. Five. Million. That’s equivalent to 1.5 times the South African population.

There’s good news, though: artificial intelligence (AI) could also create 58 million new jobs in the next few years.

People are scared, regardless. They don’t know how to prepare for the knock that’s coming. And businesses don’t know what the future workplace will look like, or what roles they’ll need to fill.

Here’s what we do know: We need to do everything possible to avoid making people redundant, to prevent ourselves from becoming dispensable, and to get comfortable with change. How? By unlearning the skills that no longer serve us, learning new skills that will take us further, and honing the skills that make us human (i.e. the stuff the machines can’t do).

Skills are everyone’s business. Individuals need to take ownership of their personal development and employability. And employers need to invest in reskilling and upskilling their people, not only because they risk losing talent, but because they have a responsibility to minimise the impact that job losses will have on society.

Here are some ideas about how organisations can nurture and secure future skills, and how individuals can make themselves irreplaceable.

Making room for the machines

More and more organisations are using technology like artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning to automate repetitive processes and tasks. This is a good thing. Why? Because automation can free up human capacity for the organisation to grow, better serve its customers, and develop its people.

Businesses that help employees in legacy roles to transition into the digital era will reap numerous benefits, like:

  • Keeping staff morale up during times of profound change,
  • Building innovative cultures and loyal teams,
  • Retaining the institutional knowledge of longstanding employees, and
  • Strengthening their reputations in the market as organisations that care.

By taking inventory of the current roles and skills in their organisation and how these align with their future needs, organisations can start to revamp their training programmes. But training as we know it has to evolve to keep pace with digital change. One-size-fits-all programmes, held in classroom settings once or twice a year, are not going to cut it. And nobody has time for them, either.

The evolution of corporate training

Learning in the digital age needs to be self-directed, interactive, scalable, and based on real-world experiences. Ideally, it should be bite-sized, offering in-the-moment learning through mentoring, tutorials built into the applications that people already use in their jobs, and immersive technologies like augmented and virtual reality.

People want simple, specialised, on-demand learning programmes, delivered through familiar formats, like YouTube videos that they can watch on their phones. To be effective, training must be personalised to each individual, to complete at their own pace.

Other elements to include in a training strategy include:

  • Gamification: encourage healthy competition among colleagues and motivate them through leader boards and official recognition of their new skills.
  • Knowledgesharing platforms: incentivise your people to share their new knowledge with colleagues, and encourage cross-learning between people from different teams and departments.

Importantly, businesses need to look within their own ranks and develop talent internally.

Lifelong learners

Individuals should take every opportunity their employer provides to upskill themselves, but they should also take responsibility for their own professional development.

Learning never stops. It’s a lifelong commitment to self-improvement, and it’s the only way that people will adapt to – and survive – constant change. Simply put, no one can respond to digital disruption without new skills, and upskilling should be part of everyone’s career progression.

Rather than specialising in one area, individuals should consider upskilling themselves in complementary disciplines. A data scientist, for example, will not only need mathematical and analytics skills, but also the ability to frame business questions and tell stories from the data. Disciplines like psychology and linguistics are becoming as important in creating AI systems as computer science.

In future, businesses will hire diverse, well-rounded individuals with skills in several disciplines that bridge the gaps between departments and functions. Those who have mastered the softer skills, like creativity, empathy, entrepreneurial thinking, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills, will be in even higher demand because these are the skills that machines are not very good at, and may never be.

Rise of the gig economy

The upside to diversifying your skills or specialising is that you can join the fast-growing ranks of gig economy workers. As entire jobs get broken down into tasks and processes, we’re seeing the emergence of a more flexible workforce.

More than 64 million people in the US and EU use gig work to supplement their main income. In South Africa, temporary employment rose from 2.6 million in 2017 to 3.9 million in 2018 as the days of ‘one person, one job’ start to peter out. According to Deloitte, 66% of South African businesses use contractors because they don’t have scarce technical skills in-house; 50% use contractors in innovation and design projects; and 52% use contractors to deliver capabilities that are hard to recruit.

The gig economy allows businesses to dip into globally diverse talent pools, hand-pick the skills they need from anywhere in the world, and gather a highly experienced, specialised team to work on specific projects.

This suggests that talent is becoming a variable resource, rather than a fixed one, and organisations are realising that it doesn’t always make sense to hire a full-time resource when they can access top talent for specific tasks, quickly and easily.

Yes, this has implications for loyalty and institutional memory, and gives rise to potential conflicts of interest. But having access to skilled, specialist freelancers empowers businesses to grow and improve their operational effectiveness.

The bottom line is this: Businesses need to leverage technology to achieve sustainable growth, boost efficiencies, and survive constant disruption. And they need skilled, competent, and adaptable people with the foresight and insight to solve problems, better serve customers, and bring creativity to life.

The sweet spot? It’s where automation and skills development meet. That’s where the magic happens.