Future of Work

This is how AI can unlock hidden talent in the workplace

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This underestimation of our own skills was one of the surprising findings from a new pilot study. Image: Unsplash/Firmbee.com

Kate Whiting
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Future of Work

This article is part of: The Jobs Reset Summit

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  • The consumer industries workforce is facing a ‘double disruption’ from automation and the economic impact of COVID-19.
  • The Consumer Industries of the World Economic Forum has collaborated with Unilever, Walmart, Accenture and SkyHive on a pilot study that uses AI to map workers’ skills and match them to emerging job roles.
  • The pilot found people have an inherent bias which makes them underestimate their skill sets.
  • It would only take six months for people to be reskilled for new roles in completely different functions.
  • Companies have a responsibility to upskill workers to keep them employable in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

If you were to write a list of your skills, you would probably come up with around 11. But if artificial intelligence assessed them, that figure would more than treble to 34 – and it could open up new career pathways you had never considered.

This underestimation of our own skill set due to inherent bias was one of the surprising findings from a new pilot study catalysed by the Consumer Industries of the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Unilever, Walmart, Accenture and SkyHive (a start-up that uses AI to map skills and match workers to opportunities). The pilot aimed to close skills gaps by giving a truer picture of just how talented workers are and how they could transition into emerging job roles.

Through initiation of the Forum’s Consumer Industries Future of Work task force, which was launched as early as 2018, Unilever (which has committed to upskilling its global workforce by 2025) and Walmart (whose focus on upskilling began in 2014) joined forces with SkyHive and Accenture on the Future Skills pilot, to close the skills gap and transition workers from low-growth to high-growth jobs.

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Why upskilling is crucial for the future of work

One in five workers are employed by consumer industries that produce, sell and distribute goods and services for billions of consumers worldwide.

But the workforce is facing a ‘double disruption’ from automation and the economic impact of COVID-19, which were catalysts for the pilot.

By 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by machines, according to the Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020, but 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms.

For workers set to remain in their roles, the share of core skills that will change in the next five years is 40%, and 50% of all employees will need reskilling.

“In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it’s imperative that companies upskill workers. With one in five workers being employed by the Consumer industries, organizations are uniquely positioned to shape a prosperous future for both business and society,” says Zara Ingilizian, Head of Consumer Industries and Future of Consumption Platform at the World Economic Forum.

AI can open up unexpected job opportunities.
AI can open up unexpected job opportunities. Image: WEF/Accenture

AI-driven skills assessment

The Future Skills pilot launched set out to answer three key questions:

1. Is it possible to identify and unlock hidden skills?

2. Are there more innovative ways to prepare people for the future of work?

3. Do viable pathways exist for people to move between organizations?

Unilever and Walmart identified roles in 11 representative cities in the US, Europe and Latin America, which were then broken down by Accenture and SkyHive into a collection of clearly defined skills.

Not only did SkyHive find people vastly underestimate their own skills, but that in some cases, a person would only need to pick up a few additional skills to switch careers entirely.


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The pilot also showed that it would only take six months for people to be reskilled for new roles in completely different functions. An IT manager at Walmart, for example, already had a 50% match on the skill sets required to be a product manager.

Not only is it possible to retrain for other roles, these kinds of transitions to emerging roles are ones workers probably would not have identified for themselves, which shows upskilling is as much about training as it is about helping people spot opportunities.

“Based on people’s own interest and learning preferences, you can help bridge the skills gap in a very customized way,” says Mayuri Ghosh, Strategy & Public-Private Partnerships, Future of Consumption Platform at the World Economic Forum.

“It’s no longer just about your degree or your qualifications, it’s a culture and mindset shift.”

A learning pathway from IT Manager to Product Manager.
A learning pathway from IT Manager to Product Manager. Image: WEF/Accenture

“Every individual conversation needs to be had,” says Leena Nair, Chief Human Resources Officer at Unilever.

“That opens the aperture of possibilities for people. They have more chance of seeing something that’s in line with their passions, rather than just, ‘You’re in manufacturing, so here’s this set of roles you can do’. We’ve been working for a number of years on how we transition people into other jobs, but with pilots like this, we’re learning how we can do it even better.”

5 lessons for the future of work

While the pilot answered all three of its questions, there were five key lessons that emerged.

1. Skilling is just smart business

Skilling people for new roles, even externally, is one of the smartest things a business can do, because of the impact organizations have on communities. Patrick Hull, VP of the Future of Work, Unilever says: “No longer will we look at someone in manufacturing as only able to fulfill a manufacturing job. Now we can look at how to match their purpose, passions and skills with roles in a variety of sectors, from healthcare to R&D to clean energy.”

2. The HR function must enable individual talent mobility

Data- and AI-driven insights empower people to make personal choices about their careers based on strengths, interests and other individual criteria. The HR function can support that decision-making process by providing career path options and learning opportunities.

3. AI is essential for eliminating bias

AI opens possibilities that people can’t see due to inherent biases. There is widespread evidence that women and people of colour under-represent their skills. It’s likely that responsible AI will help people shed more biases, create more equitable processes and more job pathways.

4. A culture change is required

A mindset shift among management is needed to foster a culture that recognizes the relationship between growing career opportunities for people and growing business. Amy Goldfinger, SVP, Global Talent at Walmart says: “You have to structure yourself as a company and as an enterprise to think about upskilling as a competitive advantage or as a business imperative, [rather than] doing it later when you have time to get to it.”

5. Cross-industry collaboration is an accelerator

Only so much can be accomplished if companies go it alone, rather than collaborating with other organizations to prepare people in their communities for the future of work. “Only jobs should be made redundant,” says Hull. “Not people.”

The Forum’s Ingilizian and Ghosh hope to scale up the pilot and bring other organizations on board.

“Together over the last years, we have defined our vision as an industry which puts people first and supports a culture of lifelong learning and personal growth to ensure workers remain productive and employable,” says Ingilizian. “We need to do it urgently and at scale.”

“We now have a proof of concept that our approach works,” says Ghosh. “The ambition is to scale the AI-driven pilot within Consumer Industries as well as cross-industry to create an ecosystem for both retention and redeployment in adjacent emerging jobs.”

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Related topics:
Future of WorkFuture of WorkDavos AgendaJobs and Skills
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