If we imagine the future job market as an ecosystem, it will be populated by both workers and robots.

Jobs are in fact evolving rapidly and almost half of them are susceptible to automation. At risk are not only occupations involving routine and/ or manufacturing tasks, which are easily replicable by computer algorithms, but also jobs involving non-routine tasks, such as legal writing, sales, driving and performing medical diagnoses. The increase in automation is perceived by some as a threat to employment in the future and has stoked fears of a jobless growth economy.

Whether justified or not, these fears are worth exploring. In such an unpredictable scenario, what makes a worker able to survive? How can employees keep up with continual changes in the labour market so as not to lose out against robots? How can one eventually thrive?

Skills-based volunteering – beyond traditional forms of engagement

Luckily, past offers a solution for the future.

There are long-established activities that can equip human capital with a variety of skills. These activities make workers more flexible and better able to survive in an unstable labour market, where jobs change quickly or become automated.

Whether you call these activities pro bono, skill-sharing, or civic entrepreneurship, they allow individuals to employ their skills to improve society, on a voluntary basis with no financial gain.

Such activities, hereinafter skills-based volunteering (SBV), differ from traditional volunteering because they go beyond conventional types of engagement such as signing a petition or making a donation. Such forms of engagement can be limiting, as they only allow individuals to join existing campaigns, rather than empowering people to team up with others or to share their talents and entrepreneurial spirit for the public interest.

In contrast, skills-based volunteering leverages an individual’s expertise to address social causes he or she cares about, usually in partnership with a non-profit organisation.

The social cause one chooses does not matter. It might be public health, climate change, education, government accountability, LGBT rights, or animal welfare. What matters is that SBV pushes individuals to go beyond the simple, one-click form of engagement and instead enables them to use their experience, skills, ideas, entrepreneurial mind-set, and imagination to improve society. This is what I do at the Good Lobby, a pioneering advocacy and skill-sharing community committed to assisting civil society organizations and grassroots groups in pursuit of their public-interest goals. In this sense, skills-based volunteering fosters new forms of civic engagement and paves the way for active citizenship.

Skills-based volunteering activities as generators of social value

The idea behind skills-based volunteering is not new. Several global movements committed to improving the state of the world, such Amnesty International, were born as skill-sharing communities.

Historically, SBV was the prerogative of wealthy people, who could afford to devote their time and expertise for wider benefit. But today, the percentage of people receiving higher education is increasing widely. This means skills-based volunteering is accessible to everyone, who, regardless of their origin or background, wants to use their talents to make a positive difference in their communities. This is especially true for young people who want to find their purpose and have a positive social impact on the world around them and their future.

The millennial generation has valuable skills that, in one way or another, can be channeled to create a better tomorrow. From drafting a provocative blog post to designing a social media campaign, from designing a website to offering legal assistance to vulnerable groups, the idea of SBV is that anyone can give their time and talents to support a cause they care about and thus generate social value.

Significantly, skills-based volunteering does not only benefit society, but individuals too. It allows them to thrive in a fast-changing, often unpredictable work ecosystem that has been defined as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Skills for the future

Skills-based volunteering is much more than a simple combination of volunteering and skill-sharing. SBV is also about consolidating skills while developing new ones. The variety of challenges, tasks and scenarios in SBV enables individuals to grow an eclectic set of skills. These are typically the skills needed to thrive in the era of automation.

Specific skills individuals can acquire through skills-based volunteering

Collaboration – Skills-based volunteering activities often require collaboration to achieve public interest goals. SBV encourages individuals to both manage their own workload and co-ordinate it as part of the overall workflow. Volunteers must learn how to prioritise and continually adjust these priorities, as well as how to overcome obstacles and conflict while working with others.

Cognitive flexibility – Individuals who do SBV learn how to work on several tasks simultaneously, both inside and outside their professional environment. This enhances their cognitive flexibility, which is the ability to switch rapidly from one task to another, or to master multiple concepts at the same time. A person who is cognitively flexible is able to learn faster, is able to combine various inputs in order to produce an original output, and is able to react to new situations more effectively, all of which are great assets in an unstable job market.

Negotiation – The ability to discuss and to reconcile differences, and to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement. Individuals who engage in SBV become used to working with people from diverse backgrounds. They learn how to mediate between different positions, and how to overcome conflict in order to achieve a common goal.

Service orientation – In SBV, individuals devote their time to social causes. This strengthens service orientation, which is how predisposed a person is to be helpful and cooperative.

Complex problem solving – In SBV individuals use their skills, in collaboration with others, to solve public problems. This advances a person’s ability to interpret complex situations and to find innovative solutions. This skill is particularly relevant in an ever-increasingly complex economy.

Social and emotional intelligence – A large part of SBV involves working with people to achieve public interest goals. Volunteers learn how to recognise and handle their emotions and behaviour, as well as how to deal with others’ emotions and behaviour.

General skills people can acquire through skills-based volunteering

Creativity – Creativity it is not an innate quality bestowed upon lucky humans, but a process one can learn. Individuals who undertake skills-based volunteering are exposed to a variety of challenges that require innovative solutions. Through SBV, individuals learn how to adopt creative answers to solve public questions collaboratively. Moreover, creativity is an essential component of civic entrepreneurship, which requires people to develop ideas and turn them into specific projects aiming at serving the community. It is worth noting that according to the OECD, jobs involving creative skills are less vulnerable to automation.

Resilience – Skills-based volunteering pulls people out of their comfort zones. It challenges them in a variety of ways and requires them to juggle professional and personal responsibilities. SBV stretches the limits of individuals, requiring them to learn new skills in order to overcome difficulties. This intrinsic feature of SBV boosts resilience, which is the ability to recover from setbacks, adapt to changes, and thrive despite adversity. This skill – which makes human capital adaptable - is particularly important in a fast-changing job market.

Empathy - The capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing and to adjust our responses accordingly. SBV is a social activity undertaken in a team, which enhances a person’s ability to empathize with peers.

Empathy encapsulates most of the skills mentioned above. It involves critical thinking, social and emotional intelligence, and sensitivity, which is arguably the most difficult skill for robots to replicate. It is no coincidence that jobs requiring empathy, judgment and analysis are the ones that have increased the most since the 80s.

Adaptability – Learning new skills through SBV makes human capital more flexible and more able to embrace the rapid changes of a fast-moving economy. An individual equipped with a wide range of skills is better able to interpret different roles in a fast-changing labour market, or to change careers swiftly. This makes them less vulnerable to the effects of automation.

Darwin, skills and the future of work

Automation is not the end of the world, nor does it represent the beginning of a jobless growth economy. On the contrary, machines push humans to develop their comparative advantage: specialising in creative, cognitive and social skills, which are hard for computers to replicate. After all, robots can output more efficiently, but humans remain in charge of allocating inputs.

It may sound simple, but in an era in which occupations change rapidly and many become automated, workers need to adjust accordingly in order to survive. To paraphrase Charles Darwin, in an uncertain job market, it is not the most educated who survive, but the most flexible, adaptable and resilient, and with a wide range of skills to unleash. Skills-based volunteering activities can make you thrive in this unpredictable ecosystem.