During the 1940s, AT&T employed more than 350,000 telephone switchboard operators -- a job that's nearly vanished. But, today, some estimates put the number of mobile app developers at 12 million individuals worldwide. Just as technologies and communications change, jobs likewise evolve. The workforce as we know it is in the throes of a revolution.
As new technologies emerge in what some have dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, innovative companies have already begun to adapt, prompting reevaluations of workforce development strategies. Artificial intelligence, in particular, brings new possibilities -- like increased productivity and innovation. It also has sweeping implications for employee skill sets. How is technology shaping the future of work, and how can businesses keep up?
Hiring Managers Point to Tech-Driven Workforce Transformation
For starters, let's look at the technologies at play. Recent research shows that hiring managers are bracing for tech-induced transformation -- starting now. Sixty-two percent of managers surveyed say AI will change how they work within five years. Other emerging technologies, such as the Internet of Things, are expected to spark similar transformations (Source: Salesforce Workforce Development Survey, May 2017).
As with any innovation, there's an upside and a downside to discuss. For example, 3D printing has given us both advanced, low-cost prosthetics and printable guns. In the workplace, the impact can also be argued both ways. While 45 percent of hiring managers say AI will have a positive impact on employment rates, 32 percent expect a negative impact (Source: Salesforce Workforce Development Survey, May 2017).
AI Paves the Way for Higher-Level Work and Soft Skills
The World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs report found that 35 percent of core skills will change between 2015 and 2020. Undoubtedly, AI holds the potential to automate certain jobs. But we're often presented with a false choice between automation and jobs. It's not a dichotomous situation.
In a recent interview on the future of work, Jonathan Reichental, CIO of the city of Palo Alto, offered up this example. If you go back 100 years, he said, "a huge proportion of our society is either working on a farm or working in a factory. Hardly anyone works on farms any more -- we have machines that do the work humans used to do. Our factories are massively automated with mass production technologies."
His takeaway? "The continuing automation of society means human beings have increasingly focused on higher-level work."
Zvika Krieger, co-leader of the World Economic Forum's Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, notes that "as AI begins to impact the workforce and automation replaces some existing skills, we're seeing an increased need for emotional intelligence, creativity, and critical thinking, for instance."
Also: AI and jobs: The journey never ends CNET
In fact, 73 percent of hiring managers say creative and abstract thinking will become more important (Source: Salesforce Workforce Development Survey, May 2017).
Highlighting the pace of workforce change, the World Economic Forum points to these 10 jobs that didn't exist 10 years ago -- including app developer and social media manager. Another estimate projects that "65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that aren't on our radar yet."
Still, Businesses Lack Formal Plans for Future-Proofing Their Workforce
Research from Bloomberg, which I covered here, shows that both business and academia lack plans to equip the future workforce. Only about half of businesses and two-thirds of academic institutions have a formal plan for addressing the impact of emerging technologies. This is a miss.
Research from Salesforce shows a majority of hiring managers (68 percent) feel that formalized retraining programs are very valuable for employees, but only 46 percent place a high priority on these programs. Another miss.
Also: Why AI could destroy more jobs than it creates TechRepublic
Not addressing workforce development and reskilling will only widen the digital skills gap, threatening business' ability to compete in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Already, 52 percent of IT leaders say skill gaps are a major challenge at their organization. Eighty-seven percent of companies say universities are not adequately preparing students for today's jobs. Only 29 percent of IT organizations rate their ability to keep pace with technology trends as excellent.
The World Economic Forum has found that over a third of the core skills required of the workforce by 2020 will be different from those today. Meanwhile, customers expect companies to provide new products and services more frequently than ever before, and it takes more than ever to impress them. In order for companies to cultivate an innovative culture, and produce innovative products and services, employee training and reskilling must be on the forefront of their business strategy.
In preparing for AI and the future of work, Gartner urges CIOs to "expand the IT charter to include helping employees rapidly embrace new technologies" while making "ease of learning and ease of use core technology evaluation criteria."
If we are to adapt to AI, it starts with prioritizing workforce training programs. It's crucial that we're as invested in building individuals' capabilities as we are in building technological capabilities. To Krieger's point, "As the pace of technological change quickens, we need to be sure that employees are keeping up with the right skills to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution."
After all, if the workforce evolved from switchboard operators to mobile app developers in 70 years, imagine what the next 50 will hold.
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