How do We Prepare our Workforce for the Jobs of the Future that Don’t Exist Today?

Technologies like AI and machine learning are fundamentally changing the ways we live and work

The pace of change in the business landscape is more rapid than anything we’ve ever seen before. Technologies like AI and machine learning are fundamentally changing the ways we live and work, and entire paradigms of business models are shifting. Industries are transitioning towards “everything as a service” (think Uber, AirBnB, grocery and prepared meal delivery etc.) and the associated driver/delivery and host roles that are created out there because of this. These and other massive sea changes will bring along with them the greatest shifts in the global workforce since the Industrial Revolution. An Oxford University report predicts that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk of being automated and eliminated within the five years or so. Let that sink in—almost half of the jobs that currently exist in the United States have the potential to be taken over by machines. 

But it’s not all bleak, as new jobs are going to be created along the way as well. Fifteen years ago, no one knew what a YouTuber was—today it’s the career aspiration of 75 percent of children and teenagers. Experts agree that jobs which rely on “non-routine cognitive tasks” (creative thinking or problem solving) or require strong interpersonal skills will be harder to phase out. The world will still need human beings to invent, persuade, empathize—and yes, create entertaining YouTube videos. But even when outright elimination isn’t on the table, we can expect some of the essential functions of difficult-to-automate jobs—like law—to shift as routine tasks are taken over by advancements in technology. 

This transformation poses huge difficulties for those of us in HR: How do you catch up to changes that haven’t happened yet? How do you prepare your workforce for a shift that will come so rapidly you won’t have time to ramp up or plan? How can your business meet this challenge without looking into a crystal ball to know what will happen next? 

I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions and I have some ideas—no crystal ball required. 

Creating a nimble workforce

As HR leaders, it’s our job to help employees become adaptable to the changing demands of work. Though no one can say for sure what new jobs will be created, we do know what kind of work will still require human input. Repetitive and predictable jobs will slowly disappear, but demand for non-routine work will persist. Technologies and trends will come and go, but, whatever the future holds, the ability to look at problems from different perspectives and develop creative solutions will remain valuable—the same for the ability to empathize and create meaningful connections with people. A growth mindset and ability to continually learn will be key employee skills, and all employers will have to think of themselves as education centers that will continually train their workforce to adapt and evolve. 

These competencies will become more important than ever for workplace success and developing them will provide knowledge workers with a safety net against obsolescence. Skills will enable workers to be flexible and able to successfully adapt. Companies need to be focusing on continuous skill development now in order to prepare workers for the changing work landscape of the future. 

In order to empower employees to enhance their skills in these core areas and encourage ongoing learning and personal growth, we need to create a culture of development. 

Fostering a culture of development

If you want to create a culture of development in your workplace, setting goals, measuring performance targets, and giving feedback can’t be once-a-year or even once-a-quarter events—they need to be ongoing. Organizations are starting to take notice: Ten percent of Fortune 500 companies have already abandoned the annual review process. 

A far more effective methodology is to provide regular check-ins and lightweight performance feedback to employees so they can improve their skills on an ongoing basis. This approach is called Continuous Performance Management, and it’s a key enabler of continuous employee development, resulting in a more motivated, agile, and ultimately, more adaptable workforce.  

Continuous performance management is based on the idea of setting objectives and key results (OKRs) to achieve audacious goals, as popularized by John Doerr in his book Measure What Matters. In Doerr’s words, continuous performance management is “a new HR model for the new world of work”—a way of using conversations, feedback, and recognition to motivate employees and spur continuous, gradual improvement. Managers, along with employees, should set developmental goals with employees one-on-one, then provide feedback at regular scheduled sessions and on an ad-hoc basis. This system ensures that workers are continuously developing their capabilities—and results in skill-building at an accelerated rate. 

Wholesale change used to take generations—now, by the time you’ve upgraded your phone, one in every two jobs will be new. We need to begin developing an agile workforce now to prepare for these changes. Continuous performance management will enable workers to constantly develop new skills, allowing them to adapt to the shifting demands of work in the face of widespread change.  

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Diane Strohfus

Diane Strohfus

In her role as CHRO of Betterworks, Diane Strohfus sits at the intersection of HR strategy and technology. Leveraging her unique experience, Diane is responsible for scaling the company through innovative people practices while simultaneously working closely with the product team to influence and evolve the companies product offerings.

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