Jobs and the Future of Work

Your boss is worried you soon won't have the skills needed to get a job

"There will be no quantum leap in our ability to ‘up-skill’ people" Image: REUTERS/Mark Blinch CANADA

Danielle Paquette
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Nearly a third of business leaders and technology analysts express “no confidence” that education and job training in the United States will evolve rapidly enough to match the next decade’s labor market demands, a new report from the Pew Research Center finds.

About 30 percent of the executives, hiring managers, college professors and automation researchers who responded to the Pew survey felt future prospects looked bleak, anticipating that firms would encounter more trouble finding workers with their desired skill sets over the next decade.

“Barring a neuroscience advance that enables us to embed knowledge and skills directly into brain tissue and muscle formation, there will be no quantum leap in our ability to ‘up-skill’ people,” wrote Andrew Walls, managing vice president at Gartner, an IT consulting firm.

“Seriously? You’re asking about the workforce of the future?” added another respondent, a science editor who asked to stay anonymous. “As if there’s going to be one?”

Lee Rainie, Pew’s director of Internet, science and technology research, the study’s co-author, helped canvass, reaching out to 8,000 decision makers in Pew's database. About 1,400 responded, and many of those told the researchers they were bracing for machines to transform the ways humans work -- sometimes in unpredictable ways.

“People are wrestling with this basic metaphysical question: What are humans good for?” he said. “It’s important to figure that out because this blended world of machines and humans is already upon us and it’s going to accelerate.”

Image: World Economic Forum

Most of the business and technology professionals expected new training programs to emerge, both at schools and on the private market, to better prepare the future labor force. But 30 percent of the 1,408 respondents doubted such a quick transformation could take place. They felt, according to the report, that “adaptation in teaching environments will not be sufficient to prepare workers for future jobs.”

Jerry Michalski, the founder at REX, a technology think tank in Portland, Ore., feared public schools and universities aren’t keeping up with changes in the economy.

“They take too long to teach impractical skills,” he wrote, “and knowledge not connected to the real world.”

“I’m skeptical that educational and training programs can keep pace with technology,” added Thomas Claburn, editor-at-large at Information Week, a news site.

Jason Hong, a Carnegie Mellon University professor, argued the country can train “small numbers of individuals” for more computerized roles at community colleges and in the university system. And while coding classes, for example, are cropping up on campuses, learning how to work in the computer realm just isn’t part of the broader American curriculum.

“There are two major components needed for a new kind of training program at this scale: political will and a proven technology platform,” Hong wrote. “Even assuming that the political will (and budget) existed, there’s no platform today that can successfully train large numbers of people.”

The next generation of workers should learn how to code, the Pew report asserts, or brush up on data science — both skills that would serve them well in increasingly automated workplaces. But they shouldn’t underestimate the importance of so-called emotional intelligence, or the ability to gracefully manage employees, co-workers and clients.

“The skills necessary at the higher echelons will include especially the ability to efficiently network, manage public relations, display intercultural sensitivity… and just enough creativity to think outside the box,” wrote Simon Gottschalk, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Frank Elavsky, a data and policy analyst at Acumen LLC, an analytic tool developer, said people can hone those skills in this digital age by remembering to interact with other people.

“The most important skills to have in life are gained through interpersonal experiences,” he wrote. “Human bodies in close proximity to other human bodies stimulate real compassion, empathy, vulnerability and social-emotional intelligence.”

B. Remy Cross, an assistant professor of sociology at Webster University in Missouri, expressed doubt that future workers could easily bolster their social skills in an increasingly online world.

“It is too hard to adequately instruct large numbers of people in the kinds of soft skills that are anticipated as being in most demand,” Cross wrote. “As manufacturing jobs move overseas or are fully mechanized, we will see a bulge in service jobs. These require good people skills, something that is often hard to train online.”

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