If the idea of artificial intelligence (AI) conjures visions of robots taking over human jobs, this is not surprising. It is a widespread image. Countless media stories paint a picture of technology irrevocably altering employment realities. Yet, the truth is, technology is not the sole driver of this change. Shifting demographics and changing societal expectations are also fundamentally transforming the workforce.
Longer lifespans mean longer careers, which heightens intergenerational competition for jobs, with people constantly having to reinvent themselves. As well, we are seeing a more diverse workforce. At the same time, we see the rise of the social enterprise, with organizations pursuing profit with purpose and adding social impact as an objective. With all these changes already occurring, supporting employees to transition to what the future of work will bring is the smart and right thing to do.
Combined, these disruptive technological and social forces signal that there needs to be a shift in the way we think about work and about jobs. Businesses, governments and employees alike must re-envision what the future of work will bring. So what actions can be taken?
Recognize that new approaches are needed
In laying the foundation for the future of work, employers will need to find a new type of workforce equilibrium. This means balancing the tasks best completed by humans and those best completed by machines. It also means changes in where and by whom that work is completed — onsite, offsite, by full-time employees or by people who are part of an open talent market, such as contractors, freelancers and crowdsourcing.
There needs to be a shift in businesses’ organizational structures and cultures, and in their talent strategies. They need to change their approach to learning to one that values employees’ individual capabilities and fosters their capacity to broaden their expertise beyond today’s rigid job definitions and functions.
Businesses have to partner with their employees so they can build new skills. And employees will need to invest in themselves and become lifelong learners to thrive.
Businesses also need to be transparent with their employees, and to partner with them so they can build new skills. And employees must recognize that the future of work requires a different approach to personal growth, meaning they will need to invest in themselves and become lifelong learners to thrive.
To do all this, businesses, governments, educational institutions and workers will have to co-create solutions and collaborate in new ways.
Foster essential human skills
Historically, most workers prepare to enter the workforce by learning the skills and knowledge required to succeed at a single job or job stream. Now, when the half-life of technical skills is between two-and-a-half and five years, this model no longer works.
Instead, educational institutions need to equip youth with broader skillsets, helping them develop the human skills that complement technology — skills like communication, collaboration, complex problem solving, creativity, empathy and rapid learning. And because these skills are more enduring and transferable, they will increase job mobility.
Building these essential skills is not just the domain of educational institutions. Businesses must communicate which capabilities are most important to them and implement practices, tools and funding support to help employees develop those skills through on-the-job experience and work-integrated learning. And when recruiting for a role, businesses should clearly identify the soft-skills-development possibilities that go with that role and take steps to enable that development.
To enable more job mobility, we need common definitions for human skills along with assessment and credentialing methodologies that can be used across all sectors — business, government and education.
Turbo-charge internal talent mobility
In many organizations, employees are hired for a tightly defined role and, while they may advance within that domain of work, they rarely move laterally across the organization. Improved mobility, mindsets and practices will better prepare employees for the future by helping them build fundamental human skills, adjacent technical skills, personal resilience and, importantly, the muscle to learn.
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This would also allow the organization to benefit from greater diversity of thought and experience, allowing it to brainstorm and innovate faster and better serve clients. Organizations will need to measure internal mobility rates and set ambitious growth targets, and then encourage employees to embrace new roles — roles they might not be formally trained for. They will also need to make it easier for them by investing in consumer-grade technologies.
Build an adaptable organization
Laying the foundation for the future of work also requires organizations to alter workplace culture. This means adopting a growth mindset where employees are encouraged and supported to be constantly learning. It means enabling greater collaboration and incorporating more inclusive practices to benefit from diversity. And it means empowering people to take smart risks, to experiment and to see failure as a path to learning. We are already seeing organizations flattening hierarchies and moving to networks of teams and agile teaming approaches.
Collaborate and co-create across sectors to enable rapid “new-skilling”
Canadian leaders across all sectors will need to work together to articulate a common vision for building inclusive prosperity through the future of work. Then they must make harmonized and coordinated changes to business, public policy and post-secondary education models to turn that vision into reality. They will need to listen to and learn from one another, build trusted relationships and experiment together to develop and implement new-skilling solutions at scale — to think big, start small and scale fast.
One idea is to introduce a “learning fund”— a registered learning investment program for individuals. This scheme would be similar to the Registered Education Savings Program, but it would see business, government and individuals jointly making contributions to invest in the future.
Another approach is for all post-secondary programs to require work-integrated learning opportunities, such as co-ops and internships, to help students accelerate their learning through experience and develop essential human skills. At the same time, academic curricula may need to expand from a once-and-done structure to include programs that encourage students to return every few years to gain new skills. This would require supportive business policies, such as “learning sabbaticals,” as well as government funding support.
In addition, because automation is likely to disproportionately affect under-represented groups, businesses and governments will need to work together and proactively introduce special programs with support systems to help these workers new-skill and prepare them to transition to new roles.
The time to act is now
There is one thing about the moniker “the future of work” that isn’t entirely accurate. The changes heralded by this future are already here, so it is imperative for businesses, governments and educational institutions to act now to lay a foundation that will support Canada’s workforce in the years to come.
Consider this possibility: A workforce of broad, highly mobile workers who excel at learning new skills just in time challenges the concept of “expertise” in fundamental ways. Indeed, some employees are likely already pushing these boundaries, but they might be facing resistance. Are we ready to accept these learners of the future? We might not be ready if we do not take steps to lay the foundation for the future of work today.
This article is part of the Preparing Citizens for the Future of Work special feature.
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