Start the reskilling revolution without me: Future of Work trends and soft data on soft skills

As work is being redefined by automation as well as changing economy and social norms, how can technology help us stay abreast, discover, hone and document our skills, and match labor demand and supply?
Written by George Anadiotis, Contributor

The Future of Work is one of the most crucial topics for a successful transition to a new era. As such, it takes center stage at the World Economic Forum (WEF) this week. Picking up from where we left in the first part on the interplay between data, automation, and the future of work, we highlight ongoing trends and examine how to approach soft skills and re-skilling.

Also: Where the tech jobs are -- and will be in the future

Based on the WEF's latest report on the Future of Jobs, we highlight the major forces at play today. We discuss how these effect the technology behind the job market with Panos Alexopoulos, Head of Ontology at Textkernel. Textkernel delivers advanced features such as multilingual semantic search and matching technologies for Careerbuilder, and Alexopoulos is leading a team building knowledge graphs to facilitate this.

Going agile, independent workers, and disaggregation of tasks

An ongoing trend in the world of labor is that towards more independent work. On the one hand, this translates to freelancing. While there is an ongoing discussion on whether this is voluntary or not and what this signifies, there is no denying that this is a reality.

Freelancers may cover the whole range from very specialized professionals to people performing commodified tasks. Outsourcing specific tasks, rather than investing in full-time employees, is a reality for many employers. In any case, going freelance means having to learn and apply skills such contract negotiation or invoicing for example, in addition to keeping up with the specifics of one's trade.

Another ongoing phenomenon is cross-functional agile teams, in which members are empowered and encouraged to get involved in activities not previously included in traditional job profiles. This may include activities such as engaging with clients or discussing and reviewing different options for product evolution, and is part of a broader paradigm shift towards more collaborative ways of working

Agile is changing how teams work, focusing on more collaboration, inclusiveness and cross-functional teams

Agile is changing how teams work, focusing on more collaboration, inclusiveness, and cross-functional teams.

Stephen Denning

Both of these observations mean that people are (perhaps implicitly) learning new skills on the job, and applying them on an ongoing basis. While this has always been the case to some extent, the rate of change today is accelerating. At the same time, task automation means that there will be a major part of the workforce that will have to learn new skills in order to deal with new requirements in their job and "move up the stack."

Also: IT jobs: Tackling the looming digital skills gap

The above point towards the conclusion that reskilling, or lifelong, agile learning, will be the norm in the near future. This point has been made clear by the WEF in its "reskilling revolution" initiative. Checking on where a company such as Careerbuilder currently stands in terms of the initiatives it is working on in this area and the technology it uses to get there may help assess progress.

Life-long learning, and badges for skills

The WEF highlights what it calls Transition Pathways: how workers could transition to new jobs based on overlapping skills. The obvious first step towards this would be to document the ecology of skills, and map individual worker skills. While some skills are acquired through education, and can be traced back and documented in this way, this is not always the case.

Many skills are acquired on the job, and can only be assessed by people and organizations engaged in work practices. An employment record does not tell the whole story regarding someone's skills. It's not always clear what roles entail in terms of functions and associated skills. In addition, both in traditional CVs and in the LinkedIns of the world, people assess their own skills, so they may be overselling or underselling them.

So-called badges may represent a way to provide a simple but flexible format for documenting and showcasing skills. A badge corresponds to a skill a person has, as recognized by a third party. Badges have visual representations, but at their core, they are a data specification. 


Reskilling will be needed for everyone in the future, but a requirement for this is to be able to document skills in the first place. (Image: WEF)

When discussing badges with Alexopoulos, we were interested in getting his views as to whether this is something he sees as being part of the employment ecosystem today. Are badges issued by organizations, used by the workforce, sought by job providers to represent skills / experience? It seems the reskilling revolution is not backed by badges at Careerbuilder -- at least not yet.

Alexopoulos admitted to not having a deep knowledge of badges, which obviously means badges are not something Careerbuilder is currently using. For Alexopoulos, the most important thing for a standardized representation to be adopted is incentives and population mechanisms.

Also: Tech jobs: How to recruit and retain the best IT workers

"As a job seeker, why should I use a badge to document my skills and not a CV or Linkedin profile?" Alexopoulos said. "Actually, personally speaking, I find even LinkedIn pretty limiting in expressing my suitability for a job, and I always use a CV for that purpose. So, the real question for badges or other similar efforts is "How are you going to ensure that people will want to use your format?"

The reskilling revolution and soft data on soft skills

CVs are often criticized, even proclaimed dead, but they still are what Careerbuilder works with apparently. This may have to do with the fact that changing a business model, and technical infrastructure, that works for them won't happen unless there is traction in the market. Badges look like a match for documenting disaggregated skills, but the facilitating adoption question does not seem to have been adequately answered.

Another point made in the WEF report is that a substantial part of those in need of reskilling will have to find their own way. This may be due to employer strategy, choosing to lay off staff instead of retrain it, or personal choice moving to freelancing and/or new activities. But even for people approaching reskilling as part of a concerted effort, it may not always be straightforward for organizations to define a transition path. 

Also: IT jobs: How the role of the CIO is changing - again

Alexopoulos agreed that at organization or domain level it can be hard to see whether and to what extent one person's skills can be applied in another domain. He noted that based on his experience, people tend to believe that their skills and qualifications are suitable only for a pretty narrow range of jobs, mainly because they have no idea what other jobs really entail:

"Giving people and organizations knowledge about what jobs are really about can help them identify better their career paths and their skill evolution. At Textkernel and Careerbuilder we are currently working on a solution for this problem by utilizing a very large amount of job market data (CVs and vacancies)," Alexopoulos said.


Assessing skills is not easy, and assessing soft skills is even harder.

(Photo by Branko Stancevic on Unsplash)

Another aspect highlighted in the latest WEF report is the emphasis on so-called "soft skills:" Things such as analytical thinking, leadership, creativity, etc. How can those be documented and verified, considering their importance in an increasingly automated labor market? Alexopoulos agreed that soft skills are important, but notes it's quite hard to really verify and quantify them without talking to people:

Also: Project manager jobs: What employers are really looking for 

"Even then, there is always room for dispute as judgments will always be vague, subjective and susceptible to bias. Consider for example the 'culture decks' of Silicon Valley companies defining what constitutes a good team player! So, even though we do have a conceptualization of soft skills in our Ontology, we are pretty careful when using this to match people to jobs," Alexopoulos said.

The takeaway? Even though reskiling and documenting soft skills will be major requirements going forward, solutions for this seem to be lagging at the moment. Granted, these are not easy problems to solve. Given their importance, however, coordinating a push towards adoption and dealing with technical issues in knowledge representation should be a priority going forward. 

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Previous and related coverage:

IBM Latin America develops digital transformation re-skilling plan

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Beyond experts: Jobs, tasks, and skills for a data driven Future of Work

Understanding and keeping track of the relationship between jobs, tasks and skills is essential for the future of work. If current efforts fall short, how can we do this going forward?

The Reskilling Revolution: Taking control of skills with Open Badges

In a rapidly shifting job market, being able to formalize skills is a requirement for job seekers and employers going forward. Open Badges is a data specification that may be able to help do that.

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