In the words of psychiatrist R. D. Laing, we live in a moment of history where change is so fast-paced that we “begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing.”
Change is not just faster. It’s also exploding in quantity and magnitude. Experts say we can expect more change in our lifetimes than has occurred since the beginning of civilization more than ten millennia ago.
Trying to keep up with change can feel like getting trapped on a runaway treadmill. Managing it can be even harder.
This reality poses special challenges for people in the workplace.
Think about it. Many of the top jobs on LinkedIn didn’t even exist just a few years ago. It’s anyone’s guess how many as-yet-unknown jobs will be the hot tickets ten years from now. Or even five. Or maybe even two.
Nobody understands this better than Michelle R. Weise, a renowned thought leader in the field of the future of work and education. She’s founder of the Strada Institute of the Future of Work. Her thought-provoking book is Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs That Don’t Even Exist Yet.
For anyone who wants to take a proactive approach to education and career planning, Michelle’s insights are worth of consideration.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Due to the “algorithmic editing” of their online searches, many people live inside a so-called “filter bubble” and no longer have access to a balanced information diet. What’s your advice on dealing with such filters?
Michelle R. Weise: How we relate to one another is changing drastically because of new forms of artificial intelligence. We’re surrounded by things with which we agree as opposed to differing viewpoints that might challenge our thinking and make us feel uncomfortable. This is hugely problematic as we consider that researchers are suggesting that empathy and emotional intelligence are skills that may empower us to out-compete or better coordinate with machines in the future.
At first blush, it seems promising that more automation will force us to demonstrate our uniquely human skills. But just because we’re human doesn’t necessarily mean we excel at the human side of work. These aren’t innate skills; we must practice them.
Duncan: So what’s the implication of this?
Weise: It’s hard work putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. But it’s much harder to empathize when we’re never exposed to those challenging views in the first place. It’s therefore important that more of our citizenry become aware that this is happening through every single click we make in the apps we use on our smartphones, tablets, or computers.
Countries like Finland may have the right approach with its “1%” AI initiative. With the support of government and private companies, the country is trying to teach 1% of the country’s population (approximately 55,000 people) basic concepts at the root of artificial intelligence technology. Although seemingly small-scale, the thrust of what the country is trying to accomplish is incredibly important.
As tasks increasingly get digitized, it’ll be ever more critical for the humans coordinating with the computers or robots to have enough domain knowledge to assess and check the work of the machines. We must be able to question the AI that undergirds all of our technologies, rather than let these technologies outstrip our ability to control them. Otherwise, our filter bubbles will become even more insular, and our ability to connect with one another will weaken without practice.
Duncan: The effect of more hours focused on screens means that people are investing less time practicing person-to-person skills with others. What’s the impact of that on an individual’s preparation for the workplace of the future?
Without deliberate practice of our human skills, we may inadvertently be impairing our competitive advantage for the future of work. Emotional intelligence, or our emotional quotient (EQ), as an example, is connected to larger issues of self-awareness and self-control, as well as optimism and flexibility. It helps us persist, face hardship, and deal with delayed gratification. In our work lives, it means we can take feedback well and demonstrate grit in the face of real challenges. Our bosses view us as more accountable and coachable with stronger EQ. These leadership skills are a powerful differentiator for employees; higher EQ translates into earnings on average of $29,000 more per year. But without deliberate practice, we may end up derailing or stagnating, unable to advance in our careers and provide for our families.
Duncan: In addition to paralyzing the world economy, the Covid-19 pandemic has unmasked a lot of problems that were in plain sight. What has the pandemic helped reveal about the issues of learning?
Weise: The global pandemic laid bare how fragile our multiple, fragmented systems of K–12 education, postsecondary education, and workforce training are. Siloed and unintegrated, our systems had long neglected millions of people looking to access the relevant information, funding, advising, support, and skills training they need in order to advance. And when Covid-19 hit, it became all too clear that our systems of learning and work were not equipped to skill up and transition large numbers of workers to jobs that are in demand.
Duncan: For a variety of reasons, online courses are gaining “market share” in the world of education. What are the keys to creating and delivering an online course that is not only engaging for the students but actually delivers great value?
Weise: The last thing we need right now is more online degree programs or credentials. There are already roughly 738,000 unique credentials flooding the education and labor markets. You’d think all these options would offer learners a selection of precise career pathways. Instead, the sheer number of programs creates more hiring friction between learners and employers. Employers already are struggling to differentiate between the vast array of signals they see on resumes and LinkedIn profiles.
Today, the millions who have lost and are losing their jobs will be focused on making ends meet. They are seeking new models that allow them to quickly acquire and demonstrate the skills employers want. They are seeking cost-effective, briefer and more targeted pathways that launch them rapidly into a job. They will not need a bundled, comprehensive program that could take years to complete—and may not effectively signal to employers what they can do. It’s more important to distill learning into the most critical and flexible modules to redeploy talent as rapidly as possible.
Duncan: You suggest the need for a new “learning ecosystem” that incorporates five guiding principles. You say it must be Navigable, Supportive, Targeted, Integrated, and Transparent. Can you give us a brief guided tour of that ecosystem?
Weise: More adults will face multiple career transitions, demanding the acquisition and demonstration of new skills. And those job changes need to feel seamless to learners, which certainly is not the case today.
- Navigable: Newly laid-off workers don’t have the technologies and tools they need for easy career navigation—ways to surface their talents and assess their skill gaps.
- Supportive: Job seekers also need access to human advisers who can coach them and help them access wraparound support services.
- By targeted, I mean that learners are seeking more precise and targeted educational pathways that clearly have some signaling power to their future employer.
- Or they may seek learning experiences that are integrated, or hands-on and embedded in the flow of work, so that they can continue earning a living while building new skills.
- And finally, we need to move away from degree requirements to a fairer and more transparent skills-based hiring environment, where more job seekers can demonstrate that they have what it takes to do the work ahead.
Duncan: As you point out, many companies have historically preferred to buy talent rather than build it among their existing employees. What impact do you expect the evolving labor market to have on that mindset?
Weise: In August 2019, the Business Roundtable produced a surprising statement redefining the purpose of a corporation as benefiting all stakeholders, including customers, employees, suppliers, and communities—not just shareholders. One part reads: “Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world.” Now, this broad statement doesn’t mean anything unless the signatories turn these words into action.
I think the onus will be on our future leaders to reimagine on-the-job training and offer more hands-on opportunities in the flow of work that empower their workers to acquire the right skills for new, emerging, and better jobs. By investing in their people and preparing them for the work ahead through continuous learning pathways and reskilling and upskilling opportunities, companies will not only demonstrate goodwill, but they will also ultimately serve corporate self-interest and survival.
Imagine the collective impact if employers were to invest a fraction of the $200 billion they spend annually on talent middlemen and instead invest those funds directly into their incumbent workforce. The leaders that begin “building” their existing talent—instead of always “buying” talent—will win the talent wars of the future and reap dividends on their intermediate- and long-term competitiveness.
Duncan: That certainly seems reasonable. So why aren’t more companies following that approach?
Weise: Time is the biggest barrier—the biggest point of friction when it comes to companies allocating time for learning new skills.
Organizations often do not carve out time for reskilling or upskilling, and most workers do not have “time off” to develop new skills on their own. Employers must therefore embed more learning opportunities that are integrated into workdays—learning experiences that are hands-on, experiential, work-based, contextualized in the real-world and tied to clear performance outcomes. No skills-building initiative will work unless we solve for this limiting factor of time.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.