Future-proofing your skills for a fast-changing workplace

Workers need to take initiative in developing new abilities as technology replaces jobs

The impact that technology such as robotics and artificial intelligence will likely have on work certainly makes for good headlines. One doesn't have to look too far to find another headline predicting the demise of one occupation or another and technological takeover. But what does the future of work really look like and how can we ensure our skills are future proofed for these new eventualities?

Our recent research – Enabling the Workforce of the Future: The Role of Learning and Development, supported by the Irish Institute of Training and Development and Skillnet Ireland – considered questions such as this. The research points to some key considerations in future-proofing skills for the future.

Our initial focus was on organisations’ role in the process, but perhaps the most significant finding for employees is that individuals need to take responsibility themselves for ensuring that they acquire the skills and knowledge that will future-proof their own employability.

We see three key trends which are shaping the evolution of skills and employees’ responsibilities in this regard.



First, change will impact a significant number of jobs and employees. While specific estimates vary, there is a good deal of consensus in research studies that most jobs will be impacted to some degree by automation, AI and robotics in the very immediate future. The European Commission forecasts an increase in global spending on workplace AI from $1.6 billion in 2016 to $59 billion (€53.2bn) in 2025, signalling that significant change is imminent.

One insurance organisation involved in the research has undertaken a pilot analysis which found that 15 per cent of current jobs will disappear within five to 10 years. Another 50 per cent of roles will be augmented to a greater or lesser extent by technological changes.

This means that the skills of today are not well suited to the work of the future and the pace of change is exceptional. Illustratively, 100 years ago, the skills learned from an engineering degree had a half-life (the time it takes 50 per cent of what is learned to become redundant) of about 35 years. Today, the figure is 3½ years.

A second key finding is that employees cannot afford to rely on their employer to drive their reskilling.

While most organisations we spoke to realise the importance of the changes that are happening, they are under such pressure to meet their current skills needs that they have limited resources are available to enable the workforce for the future.

Our survey found that only 30 per cent of responding learning and development professionals felt confident about their ability to deliver their organisation’s future skills needs. While organisations are ready and willing to help their employees, it seems clear that employees themselves must lead the process of identifying and acquiring the skills and knowledge they will need.

There is evidence that this is already happening; reflecting a relatively recent change, 70 per cent of respondents in our survey pointed to the importance of individual ownership of learning and development.

As organisations seek to respond to employees’ demands for learning that is “just in time, just enough and just for me”, employees must now ensure that “just enough” learning includes the skills they will need in the future, as well as those they need to perform today.

Finally, and positively for employees, we also found a good deal of consensus about the skills that will grow in demand as these changes unfold. Not surprising is the consensus that technology and data analytical skills will continue to grow in importance.

However, consistent with other research we found that core cognitive and interpersonal skills will become even more important as technological changes sweep the workplace. This perspective can be thought about in terms of the attributes of “T-shaped professionals”, who have not only deep technological expertise but whose learning and development at work enhances their ability to solve problems, lead teams, innovate, build relationships.

This is a useful model for individual employees to consider as they take greater ownership of enabling themselves to remain valued employees in the turbulent times ahead.

Enabling the Workforce of the Future: The Role of Learning and Development can be found at: https://business.dcu.ie/the-future-of-work-dcu-business-school-research-finds-companies-unprepared-for-technological-change/

Dr John McMackin is an Assistant Professor in HRM and Organisational Behaviour at DCU Business School. Dr David Collings is Professor of HRM and Associate Dean for Research at Dublin City University Business School.