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Tracey Smith

Numerical Insights LLC


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Taking control of your career journey: preparing for future skills


How can employers and employees prepare for a future demand in skills, particularly when they may not even exist yet? Well, one thing’s for sure, collaboration will be key to ensure the sustainable evolution of the modern workplace.

Skill sets change over time. They always have; they always will. Assessing the impact of this is part of a strategic workforce planning assessment and the resulting actions are something which HR practitioners can actively contribute to.

We are constantly bombarded by articles predicting the number of jobs that will be replaced with automation and AI. The reaction to these predictions is widely varied. First, we see a sense of urgency around the topic of transitioning skill sets. 

  • Which skill sets will we lose to automation and AI?
  • Can we retrain the people that will be made redundant?

The most extreme reaction I heard was during a conference call recently. The host was truly fearful that we were facing the end of humanity and that we needed to band together to brainstorm how to prevent technology from replacing jobs.

This level of panic is not warranted. A report issued by the World Economic Forum, Towards a Reskilling Revolution, concluded that “95% of the 1.4 million US workers who are expected to be displaced in the next decade can be transitioned to new positions with similar skills and higher wages.”

History repeats itself

When it comes to assessing the impact of a changing world on the workforce, those that have been in the workforce for a longer period of time have more information with which to judge the impact. When the personal computer began to infiltrate our offices, public opinion was that it would displace many workers. The impact was much smaller than the public anticipated.

I worked in engineering at the time and what really happened was that we traded our manual calculation skills for learning how to program a computer to do the calculations for us. The same knowledge that made us good at manual calculations also gave us the ability to quickly learn how to program Fortran, Pascal and Cobol.

In the movie, Hidden Figures, that’s exactly what one character did. The female lead character led a team of “quants” and she could see that the recent installation of an IBM machine would eventually replace her team. She took action to learn how to program the IBM machine to keep her team relevant.

When the personal computer began to infiltrate our offices, public opinion was that it would displace many workers. The impact was much smaller than the public anticipated.

Later in my career, I could see that some of my specialised skills (and those of my team) were being replaced by software tools. As the years passed, the skills needed to perform formerly specialised activities were becoming less and less. It was then that I began to think about shifting my skill set.

Over the past few decades, one of the fastest skill set changes has been seen in IT professions. Having observed friends in those job roles, the ones that survived the decades were the ones that constantly taught themselves new programming languages. 

Understanding one programming language makes it easier to learn additional languages, just as understanding engineering calculations made it easy for us to learn how to program calculations into a computer. Today, many of us are learning R and Python because the world keeps on moving. We must execute a continuous learning strategy to keep up.

Who is responsible for transitioning worker skill sets?

Are companies responsible for retraining workers that are made obsolete by technological change, or are employees responsible for assessing their own situations and taking appropriate action to keep their skills relevant?

The answer to the above question doesn’t matter and here’s why. Companies can be well-intentioned in their desire to prevent downsizing obsolete employees, but from a practical point of view, two realities are significant:

  1. The company doesn’t normally have enough HR resources available to assess every job that will be made redundant and to create customised learning plans to transition worker skill sets.
  2. The people that would be assigned to performing an assessment of these employees know less about the employee’s true capabilities than the actual employees do. Companies are often blind to the skills you used at former companies or in community work.

Therefore, from a practical point of view, workers have a much better chance of remaining relevant and employed if they proactively assess their own skill sets and set their own learning plan. The optimal scenario is to have your HR expert facilitate the exercise with you.

What can we do?

During my own career, I managed to transition my skills from heat transfer and fluid flow engineering for the automotive industry (you can’t get more niche than that!), to supply chain and human resources across multiple industries. 

The key to my transitioning success was in analysing the skills that would become irrelevant and the skills that could be applied to other areas. My main transferrable skills were mathematics, project management and critical thinking. I combined this with additional education to complete my transition. 

For those worried about the future, it’s time to become accountable to yourself to plan your future career survival. 

When I transitioned into human resources, I spent every lunch hour for a month learning the online material for the HR certification. I didn’t need the certification – I just needed the knowledge of understanding what HR did and the typical services it provided to the business. I am thankful to that employer for making the material available.

For those worried about the future, it’s time to become accountable to yourself to plan your future career survival. 

Tips to ensure your skills are relevant

  • Be aware of what’s changing around you and think about the impact this could have on your job role.
  • Be proactive in assessing your transferrable skills. Waiting for others to organise the exercise for you may yield unfavourable outcomes.
  • Conduct your own assessment or get together with co-workers and friends to use the combined thinking power.
  • Ask HR experts to lead you in a skill set assessment exercise and the formation of development plans.
  • If you are an HR leader or practitioner, proactively volunteer to lead these exercises.

Skill sets in this world will always change. It’s time to shift the responsibility for shifting skill sets into the employee base and time for HR to help lead skill set assessments. 

The people most “in the know” about their future and the most motivated to control it are the employee themselves, but this is also a chance for HR to display its leadership skills.

This article was written by Tracey Smith, President of Numerical insights LLC.

Author’s note: This article links to some of the actions in the gap assessment phase and the action planning phase. For an introduction to the full process, see the book: Strategic Workforce Planning: Guidance & Back-up Plans.

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Tracey Smith


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