Reskilling for jobs of the future

What we need is a broad skills base by creating an agile but demand-led skills engine that can respond to any

Faran Mahmood March 06, 2019
The writer is a Cambridge graduate and is a panelist for the British Council’s debate on ‘Re-skilling for jobs of the future’. He tweets @faranmah

Imagine that one day you wake up and discover that a robot has taken over your job — making you redundant. As your associate degree in computer science is pretty much outdated, you fail to get the attention of potential recruiters in your city.

However, foresight studies show that our next nightmare isn’t about robots taking over our jobs but is rather about not finding enough humans to take them. This skill crisis is as real as it gets.

As we think how people can be prepared for tomorrow’s world of work, the question remains: what is apparently the future of work and why does it even matter?

Mapping trends and analysing key drivers to formulate future scenarios may be evidence-backed but these scenarios are still speculative at best. However the value in such exercises is that they serve as the nub of the debate around opportunities, threats and skill ‘gaps’ that our labour market may face in future. The debate helps setting agenda for human resource development planning by identifying priority skills that youth needs to take up the high-paid, high-skilled jobs of the future.

The future landscape of the world in 2040 may turn out to be radically different from the present and the past. In 2040, US-style, high mass consumption economies may no longer be sustainable and ideas like “economies of scale” may roll back due to high carbon taxes. The world in 2040 could be a heaven for entrepreneurs — with small enterprises offering a high level of customisation in their products and services, tailored to customers’ needs. It is highly likely that the linear model of education –employment – career may no longer be the ‘business as usual’ and that increased automation may disrupt at least some of the white collar jobs. Artificial intelligence, robotics, internet-of-things and digital innovations could boost productivity, but at the expense of low-skilled workforce. It is estimated that as many as 15 per cent of the global force may need to switch occupational categories at some point in their careers. However unlike the smooth large-scale shift from agriculture to manufacturing that happened in the 20th century, the speed of change in fourth industrial revolution is potentially faster. In fact the rate of technological change could outpace the ability of policymakers and academia to respond adequately. If government isn’t prepared for such future challenges, it shall be compelled to protect workforce being displaced by technology for political reasons — creating severe economic distortions and systemic problems. So in this marathon for future jobs, we should be looking to compete on quality instead of running the race to the bottom on wages.

What we need is a broad skills base by creating an agile but demand-led skills engine that can respond rapidly to any transformations. This implies that stronger partnerships between policy makers, academia and industry — especially small-and medium-sized enterprises and startups — are needed to develop transferrable skills. There seems to be a strong business case not only for flexible and life-long learning as boundaries between different disciplines may also get blurred with time.

So say, with a decline in manufacturing sector worldwide, the question is not whether we should continue producing mechanical engineers or STEM graduates at the current rate. Instead we should be challenging the job description of a mechanical engineer from 2040 — a role that may require a totally different skill mix than is expected from an engineer of 2019. Future engineers are expected to be T-shaped professionals with training in allied areas such as business analysis, economics, quality assurance and project management — not to mention other soft skills such as communications, negotiations, holistic thinking and creativity.

The onus to re-skill our workforce primarily falls on our policymakers who should push the collaboration between businesses and academia to rethink education for tackling talent crunch. C-suite executives are already asking questions about what it takes to meet future talent demands for smooth enterprise-wide transformations. So policymakers should encourage employers to take a lead in the design of educational programmes and should ensure alignment of public and private investments when it comes to preparing our workforce for future challenges.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 6th, 2019.

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