Preparing Skill Sets for Today and Tomorrow

Sixty years ago Doris Day sang “Que Será, Será” in the Alfred Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much. Today it’s not true that “whatever will be, will be” or that “the future’s not ours to see.” A lot has changed since then, including the ability to see what will be. Today economic and labor data collection and analysis give us predictions of the future workplace and the skill sets that will be in demand. We can see what skill sets will be most in demand for businesses to be competitive in a fast changing marketplace and for workers to have successful careers.

There is no doubt that the nature of work has changed with the increase in automation and artificial intelligence, and will continue to change. The McKinsey Global Institute paper, Skill Shift: Automation and the future of the workforce says that the strongest growth in demand will be for technological skills. This demand for technological skill sets will rise 55 percent by 2030 and will include basic digital skills along with advanced skills such as programming. The demand for social and emotional skills such as leadership will grow by 24 percent, and demand for higher cognitive skills will increase by 8 percent.

The increase in demand for these skills sets will affect many people: more than one in three workers may need to adapt their skills. Continual change means that lifelong learning is going to be an important part of workers’ lives and supporting lifelong leaning for employees will be important to all businesses. Workers and employers will need to create education plans that complement business needs so that workers can develop the necessary skill sets. The data available today shows that those skill sets need to include both technology and soft skills.

In the Council of Economic Advisers report Addressing America’s Reskilling Challenge,” the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine says that the continuing advance of IT will require workers to have complementary skills. “Workers will require skills that increasingly emphasize creativity, adaptability, and interpersonal skills over routine information processing and manual tasks.”

Routine information processing and manual tasks may have been an integral part of the workforce a few decades ago, but the labor market has changed drastically. Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce says that today’s economy is more intricate than in the past, with more occupations and programs of study. The number of occupations increased from 270 in 1950 to 840 in 2010, and the number of postsecondary programs of study increased from 410 in 1985 to 2,260 in 2010. These new occupations demanded new skill sets and new higher education programs made it possible for workers to change and adapt their skills to meet demands. And these changes are ongoing.

More than 6.6 million jobs are unfilled today, many because workers don’t have the required skills. For these workers higher education and acquiring skills that match those required in the 6.6 million jobs is a necessity. And skills that workers will need in the future will be different from those required today. The most important thing workers can do to create employment opportunities and career stability is to pursue continual education and lifelong learning to acquire skills that will be in demand. The most important thing businesses can do to create a stable labor supply is to be part of their workers’ education process. Providing tuition assistance to workers so they can acquire skills that are necessary makes it possible for business to have a workforce that is adaptable and can accept the challenges that change brings.

The need for updating skill sets is a permanent part of the business and labor market today. This is good for business says McKinsey Global Institute. “The skill shift is not only a challenge, it is an opportunity. If companies and societies are able to equip workers with the new skills that are needed, the upside will be considerable, in terms of higher productivity growth, rising wages, and increased prosperity.”