Forum Institutional

This is why organizations should adopt a skills-first approach

A skills-first approach is seen as key to widening the talent pool.

A skills-first approach is seen as key to widening the talent pool. Image: Pexels/Pixabay

Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Future of Work

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  • In the next five years many jobs will change, requiring new skills.
  • A skills-first approach prioritises ability over job history and academic certificates, and is seen as an important tool in bringing in new talent, improving workplace equity and addressing job shortages.
  • Girls Who Code focusses on closing the gender gap in digital skills, which will become increasingly important in the future.
  • SkillsFuture Singapore is encouraging citizens to develop new skills and helping embed a skills first approach across businesses.

Whether you are sitting at a desk, operating machinery or dealing with customers, chances are your job will look different in five years’ time. Rapid advances in technology and new emerging roles are changing the work we do - and the skills we need to do it.

“The way we work and the fact that there's so much change in social technology, in business models, and so on, means that there is a need for enterprises, for individual workers, and for economy and society as a whole, to continuously think about ‘how then do I acquire new skills to be relevant, to overcome challenges, to continue to seize opportunities for growth?’” says Tan Kok Yam, Chief Executive of SkillsFuture Singapore.

He is one of a growing group of business leaders and thinkers promoting a ‘skills first’ approach to work. This means looking at workers’ talents and competencies rather than exclusively focusing on work history or academic qualifications.

Tan Kok Yam was interviewed alongside Tarika Barrett, CEO of Girls Who Code, for a World Economic Forum podcast in the run up to the Growth Summit: Jobs and Opportunity for All.

Why take a skills-first approach?

Focusing on skills, rather than how they have been acquired, has the potential to democratise the workplace. Many more people, who might not have come up through traditional pathways, will be able to access the workplace, creating greater opportunities, empowerment and economic equity.

We are already seeing talent shortages in some areas of rapid growth as the future workplace evolves. A skills-first approach is seen as key to widening the talent pool and enabling us to meet some of these shortages.

A chart showing skills assessment mechanisms, to help when hiring.
Organizations currently place a high emphasis on work experience as a way to assess skills. Image: World Economic Forum: World Economic Forum, Future of Jobs Survey 2023.

Alongside this, there are fundamental changes in the demand for some jobs, driven by both macroeconomic trends as well as broader technology adoption. The Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2023 finds that by 2027, there will be a decline of 44 million jobs in fields including operations and administrative work. And, by contrast, more than 30 million jobs will be created in areas including the green transition, AI and education.

Speaking to the growth in technology roles, Tarika Barrett argues a skills-first approach is vital to developing the talent needed.

“We cannot afford to leave an ounce of tech talent on the table,” she says. “And one tangible and feasible change that all companies can make is to stop relying on this elitist system of academic credentialing and hiring, which often offers a very narrow and privileged perspective around success.”

Developing the future workforce

Barrett launched the non-profit Girls Who Code to tackle the gender gap seen in the development of digital skills. These skills are set to become far more prominent in future, but women currently only make up 17.5% of the tech workforce and hold just 5% of the leadership positions.

A bar chart showing levels of digital skills of individuals in the EU, by sex and age group, 2019.
At a later age, the gender divide in digital skills widens. Image: European Institute for Gender Equality.

“[Young women] sometimes don't see themselves reflected in an industry that can often be very white and male as presented to them,” says Barrett. “We're constantly changing a culture that tells them that they don't have a seat at the table.”


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

Barrett argues that the need to build these skills is becoming ever more pressing. “We cannot opt out of tech. We are way past that point. And so it's more important than ever that the people creating the tech we use on a daily basis reflect the diversity of our communities and the world we live in today.”

“Our communities are going to be safer, more secure, and more able to reap the immense benefits of quality tech if our young people have a seat at the table. And that's why we focus on a skills first approach.”

How Singapore is creating a skills movement in society

Many companies responding to research for the Future of Jobs Report 2023 say that skills shortages are hampering their ability to transform, and see a clear need for training and reskilling.

A graphic showing the supply and demand for skills, 2023-2027.
Upskilling through online courses helps increase the availability of talent. Image: World Economic Forum: Future of Jobs Report 2023.

SkillsFuture Singapore is a public sector agency focussed on incentivising continuous education and upskilling adults in Singapore. But Tan argues that it is about more than a fiscal investment from the government - it is about a mindset shift.

“[It needs to be a] societal movement, if you like, where individuals are seized with the idea of continuously improving their own skills capital, of looking ahead and saying, ‘Okay, where can I improve myself so as to be ready to either transit to a new sector or to deepen and be more versatile in my own sector’,” he explains.

“Companies need to be able to recognise skills and also then be able to encourage and enable their workers to have opportunities in the workplace and beyond to build up their skills.”

Tan argues that successfully applying a skills-first approach relies on companies buying into the idea and participating in its development. “At the end of the day, it is not about attending courses and being able to distribute certificates and so on. Those will have no meaning and no value if they are not recognised in the job market by employers.”

“The way to involve employers is to give them some skin in the game, push some of the leading industry captains, and ask them if they are willing to lean forward to look after their sector or place in their value chain.”

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Forum InstitutionalJobs and the Future of Work
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