Education and Skills

The digital skills gap is widening fast. Here’s how to bridge it

Research support officers and PhD students Luca Bondin and Foaad Haddad work on an artificial intelligence project to train robots to autonomously carry out various tasks, at the Department of Artificial Intelligence in the Faculty of Information Communication Technology at the University of Malta in Msida, Malta February 8, 2019.

Rapid advances in fields like AI have created a demand for newly skilled workers. How should businesses prepare? Image: REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

Miguel Milano
President, Salesforce
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Access to skilled workers is already a key factor that sets successful companies apart from failing ones. In an increasingly data-driven future - the European Commission believes there could be as many as 756,000 unfilled jobs in the European ICT sector by 2020 - this difference will become even more acute.

Skills gaps across all industries are poised to grow in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and other emerging technologies are happening in ever shorter cycles, changing the very nature of the jobs that need to be done - and the skills needed to do them - faster than ever before.

At least 133 million new roles generated as a result of the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms may emerge globally by 2022, according to the World Economic Forum. There will also be strong demand for technical skills like programming and app development, along with skills that computers can’t easily master such as creative thinking, problem-solving and negotiating.

Here's the tech - but how can companies find the talent to go with it?
Image: World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report 2018

A short-term solution to filling these skills gaps would be for companies to pay a premium to acquire talent with skills in demand. But even if they can find people with the right skills and are happy to bear the cost, it will not help in a few years time when those new skills are no longer needed.

The point is that as new roles emerge and skills requirements change, the size of the existing pool of skilled workers just isn’t going to be big enough to meet demand. Today, for example, there is a massive shortage of people skilled in data science and AI. Companies won’t simply be able to fall back on hiring new employees as they attempt to future-proof their workforce.

So, what options do business leaders have now as they prepare for such a rapidly changing future?

Sizing up the problem

To address the problem, companies must invest more in enabling their workforce to reskill - starting now. Timing is critical. The World Economic Forum estimates that more than half (54%) of all employees will require significant reskilling by 2022, but the problem is likely to be even more acute in some regions. European Commission figures show that around 37% of workers in Europe don’t have even basic digital skills, not to mention the more advanced and specialised skills companies need to successfully adopt digital technologies.

What is required is a holistic solution that prioritises new approaches to skills development within an existing workforce and in previously untapped talent pools. Such an approach would also help address the shared responsibility (with governments and education providers) of ensuring that the technological advances of the Fourth Industrial Revolution don’t increase economic inequality as lower-skilled workers find themselves out of a job.

Step up plans for workforce building
Although two-thirds of U.S. hiring managers believe that implementing workforce development programmes will help them prepare for future disruptions or innovations, many businesses have been slow to do so. They are held back by budgetary constraints, lack of employee time to participate in training, and lack of appropriate training technology.

This inertia is hard to fathom, given the looming skills gap and the urgent need to develop a proactive response. As the skills gap widens, businesses that don’t take steps now to tackle the problem will be left behind. Business leaders need to look critically at the technical and ‘human’ skills needed to future-proof their workforce, and move quickly to free up the resources needed to take the first steps towards building a culture of lifelong learning among their employees.

Harness technology to enable lifelong learning

Companies can develop their own courseware for reskilling and upskilling employees. Several online learning platforms such as Coursera, Udacity and Udemy have promised to help businesses stay ahead of digital disruption by offering courses in areas including data science, machine learning and AI. Salesforce has developed its own free, gamified online learning platform, Trailhead, which allows users to take control of their own training and develop the skills they’ll need in the future.

The companies that are successful in workforce transformation will be able to “harness new and emerging technologies to reach higher levels of efficiency of production and consumption, expand into new markets, and compete on new products for a global consumer base composed increasingly of digital natives”, according to the World Economic Forum.

Swim outside your usual talent pools

Businesses must also develop new approaches to workforce development for those outside of traditional talent pools. By hiring people from diverse backgrounds, including young people, minority groups and those without a college education, businesses can tap into a huge pool of high-potential and underutilised talent.

Studies have confirmed the benefits of workforce diversity, which drives both innovation and results. According to a McKinsey report, companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.

In addition to adopting more inclusive hiring practices, businesses also need to think about how they provide training. Apprenticeships offering practical on-the-job training, in-house training programmes for non-college educated entry-level employees, and partnerships with external workforce development agencies, all play an important role when building a more diverse workforce.

Effective existing skills development programmes, like the Siemens Foundation’s Middle-Skill Initiative, work with young adults to close the ‘opportunity gap’ and build careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Another organisation, Year Up, provides training, support and meaningful work experience to nearly 4,000 young adults annually, with the aim of helping them fulfill their potential in higher education or kick-start a career.

Salesforce’s own Pathfinder training program, developed jointly with Deloitte, aims to equip workers with the technical and business skills needed for careers in the Salesforce ecosystem.

Have you read?

Be employee-friendly

Finally, businesses must aim to become an ‘employer of choice’ in order to boost their chances of attracting and retaining talent.

In a competitive jobs market, securing top talent isn’t only about offering an attractive salary package and other perks. Millennial employees in particular want to work for an organisation of which they can feel proud. Those with high-value skills will increasingly vote with their feet if a business doesn’t align with their values.

Salesforce research shows that companies that lead with their values, create social impact and work towards building a more diverse and inclusive culture are better positioned to boost employee engagement and productivity, and win the war for talent. Best-practice recruitment and providing opportunities for ongoing personal development and community service also go a long way towards attracting and retaining top talent.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to enable businesses to future-proof their workforces. However, by making upskilling, reskilling and employee retention priorities and freeing up the resources needed to build a continuous learning culture, businesses will be well positioned to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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Related topics:
Education and SkillsFourth Industrial RevolutionJobs and the Future of Work
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