At the end of September, IBM’s Almaden Research Center sponsored a conference on the future of jobs, the skills required for these jobs and how colleges, private sector companies and governments can individually, and in partnership, prepare people for these jobs.
The conference, titled Regional Upward Spirals: The Co-Elevation of Future Technologies, Skills, Jobs and Quality-of-Life, attracted participants from each of these sectors and from a number of think tanks. All focused on themes surrounding:
- The growing shortage of educated workers;
- How technology is transforming jobs;
- Skills required for the jobs of today and tomorrow;
- The role and challenges of colleges and universities in preparing a new generation of knowledge workers;
- The role of the private sector in educating, training and helping employees refresh existing and develop new skills;
- The need for partnerships among private and public sectors, academia and non-profits in closing the nation’s “skills gap;” and
- The need to equip policymakers with better tools to model quality-of-life improvements generation over generation in regions, as infrastructure, skills, jobs change together.
The U.S.’s Growing Skills Gap
IBM’s Chief Economist, Martin Flemming, kicked off the conference by putting the current recession into historical perspective and aligning it with economist Carlotta Perez’s Waves of Technology Change, postulating that the economy is now in the transition between the installation and deployment phases of telecommunications and IT—between the initial implementation of these technologies, toward their use in fundamentally transforming business processes and societal institutions. Although such transitions typically result in slower investment and growth, this effect is now being compounded by our attempt to emerge from the financial recession.
A representative from McKinsey Global Institute then honed into our current employment problems by outlining some of the key findings of the group’s recently published report, An Economy that Works, explaining, for example, the unprecedented toll this recession has taken on jobs. This toll is particularly steep among those in low-skill/low-pay and mid-skill/mid-pay jobs. However, the unemployment rate among college graduates is still relatively low (4.2% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report) and the number of college graduates with jobs has actually grown by more than 1 million over the last two years.
In fact, many companies are unable to find all the educated workers they need—at least those with the skills they require. Forty percent of companies have had job openings for six months that they have been unable to fill due to lack of the proper skills. This is particularly true for specialized technical skills in science, engineering, computer programming and other areas of IT.
This skills mismatch, is likely to get worse before it gets better. McKinsey estimates that if the economy does improve, employers will face a shortage of about 1.5 million workers with college degrees (especially STEM degrees) by 2020. At the other end of the education spectrum, there will be a surplus of almost 6 million workers without high school degrees.
Just what skills are employers looking for? Clearly, as has been discussed endlessly over the last decade, employers have a deep, apparently endless need for STEM skills. Silicon Valley, as we always hear, has been continually ratcheting up the salaries (not to speak of the benefits) it provides the most promising computer science graduates.
Companies including Dow Chemical and IBM are spending hundreds of millions of dollars developing curricula, funding courses and sponsoring research projects and fellowships in areas including chemical engineering and business analysis, respectively. At the conference, McKinsey highlighted the need for math and analysis skills by projecting a need for almost 3 million people (including more than 150,000 highly-trained “data scientists”) to extract business insight from “big data”.
In its An Economy that Works report, McKinsey groups these and hundreds of other job opportunities into six primary segments of the U.S. economy that it claims, will account for 70-85 percent of the up to 22.5 million new jobs (assuming strong growth) the country will create over the rest of the decade: healthcare (by far the largest), business services, leisure and hospitality, construction, manufacturing and retail.
There is, however, a caveat to even these projections. As Irving Wladawsky-Berger discuses in his blog on the conference, University of California Berkeley professor John Zysman discussed the ways in which “the algorithmic revolution” (the ability to codify activities underlying services and embed them into software) is fundamentally transforming the nature of mid-skill services jobs. The componentization of continually higher-level services functions, for example, is already making it easier to automate and offshore these functions.
Meanwhile, new innovations, such as IBM’s “Watson” has the potential of bringing this algorithmic revolution up into specialized realms of qualitative research and even expert knowledge. One of its first uses, for example, is likely to be in medical diagnostics, such as where a doctor can input lists of symptoms, medical histories, and a broad range of other relevant information to identify possible illnesses and recommended treatments. This, as I discussed in a previous blog on Watson, is only the first step in transforming medicine and the nature of knowledge jobs across all domains, and in changing and upgrading the types of skills tomorrow’s knowledge workers will require to ensure long, engaging and rewarding careers.
Just what skills will be required? Although each industry, and each job within it will certainly require specific combinations of functional skills, another presenter, from the Institute for the Future, cited its report, Future Work Skills 2020 to posit ten more generalized, foundational skills that will be required of most knowledge workers:
- Sense-making: ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed;
- Social intelligence: ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions;
- Novel and adaptive thinking: proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond that which is rote or rule-based;
- Cross-cultural competency: ability to operate in different cultural settings;
- Computational thinking: ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning;
- New media literacy: ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms, and to leverage these media for persuasive communication;
- Transdisciplinarity: literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines.
- Design mindset: ability to represent and develop tasks and work processes for desired outcomes;
- Cognitive load management: ability to discriminate and filter information for importance, and to understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques; and
- Virtual collaboration: ability to work productively, drive engagement, and demonstrate presence.
Meanwhile, in another IBM conference on Leadership being held the same week in New York, Tom Friedman set the skills bar even higher, claiming that “Everyone has to bring something extra, being average is no longer enough. . . Everyone is looking for employees that can do critical thinking and problem solving . . . just to get an interview. What they are really looking for are people who can invent, re-invent and re-engineer their jobs while doing them.”
This leads to yet another change in the job market that will require even more skills of tomorrow’s knowledge workers—companies’ growing reliance on part-time, contract and freelance employees as an alternative to hiring full-time employees. This means that more and more of tomorrow’s knowledge workers will, whether they want to or not, have to run their own companies or partner with others to create small business services companies. Not only will they need the skills required to manage a business, they must also have the skills required to work independently. Most importantly, they will need the sills to continually market and sell themselves, their ideas and their unique skill sets.
This is a very tall order. What must schools do to help students develop these skills—both functional and foundational? Are today’s schools really capable of doing so? How can other institutions, including companies, foundations, non-profits and governments help? These and a number of related issues will be discussed in my November 27th blog.