Automation and digitisation are changing the working world in ways which few of us could have imagined even a short time ago. Once sought-after skill sets are becoming obsolete, while new jobs are being created which require capabilities not thought of a decade ago. And the pace of change is accelerating.
This presents real challenges to people seeking to arm themselves with the skills they need to further their careers. But the good news is that our uniquely human characteristics may be our most valuable assets in an increasingly machine-driven world of work.
“Research indicates that 40 to 50 per cent of job roles today won’t exist in five years’ time,” says Julie Ryan, head of custom solutions and client development with the Irish Management Institute. “The World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report says 50 per cent of today’s workforce will require upskilling for 2025. That accelerated timeline is due to the double disruption of the pandemic and digitisation.”
However, she believes the skills issue should be viewed in the round. “Maybe skills alone won’t be enough,” she says. “We need to look at the workforce of the future including human and non-human capabilities and how they co-exist. Businesses are looking at where growth will come from and what capabilities will be needed. There is more strategic intentionality there.”
But the World Economic Forum’s prediction for the top 10 skills required for 2025 may be a little surprising. “problem solving tops the poll,” Ryan notes. “But we have to break down problem solving. What does it mean? It’s the ability to think ahead and see around corners. It’s thinking from outside in rather than inside out. It’s an ability to plan. Critical thinking will be huge as well. The ability to make sense of and interpret what you see and hear. These are uniquely human faculties.”
Niamh O’Brien, who heads up BDO Talent Management, agrees. “People really need to look at those softer skills like problem solving, innovation and creativity. For employers, investing in leadership and management skills to lead remote teams will be important.”
While technology skills will remain in very high demand, people will need to look beyond them. “Individuals need to look at those skills but at the softer skills as well for the longer term as they prepare for the new environment,” she adds.
Attitude makes a big difference, says KPMG head of resourcing Paul Vance. "People who are continually open to learning and the realisation that there's always more to know have a distinct advantage. Those who seek out learning and further development tend also to have a fairly clear idea of what they want from a career and that's usually noticed by those making career-related decisions."
Three Ireland director of people development Keavy Gorman also emphasises the softer end of the skills spectrum. "Digital skills are almost at the bottom of the list for employers," she notes. "There is an assumption that people have these skills already. When you look at the technologies we are using every day, we all have skills in them."
Three is running its own programmes to help people burnish those human skills. “One of the key skills we are looking for is leadership. We are investing in our people’s leadership skills. Collaboration is also important. As more technology such as AI and bots comes in, we need to work with it.”
Gorman also cites problem solving as a key skill. “It’s part of the value that we as humans bring to work.”
When it comes to more traditional skills, Three has invested heavily in online learning platforms. “Employees have access to all the learning programmes they want. People are certifying themselves. They are doing nanodegrees in data science and AI. The continuing investment in digital technology will give rise to the hybrid worker combining technology and human skills and people can use the learning platform to acquire those skills. People are now having multiple roles in their career. They are using transferable skills to zigzag and gain loads of experience in different roles while doing courses to add to their skills. It’s the whole concept of lifelong engagement in shorter skills-development programmes.”
The UCD Professional Academy was set up three years ago to provide shorter learning programmes. “The changing world of work is very interesting,” says academy managing director Aaron McKenna. “There are executive education offerings like MBAs and other courses, but we felt there was a gap in short, sharp, skills-based training. Probably one of the things that drove us into the space was the rapid pace of change. Many of the jobs people will be doing in a few years don’t exist at the moment.”
He says people considering upskilling are spoilt for choice at the moment. “You can do anything. You can go to an online platform like Udemy where you can download the courseware and so. You can do short courses with the UCD Professional Academy, or you can even go back to university to do another degree or get a postgraduate qualification.”
Dr Maeve Houlihan, associate dean of the UCD Lochlann Quinn School of Business, advises people to get “micro-credential and digital badging savvy”.
“The big tech firms have a lot of opportunities for free learning and useful accreditations including Microsoft’s Global Skills Initiative, LinkedIn Learning and Google’s Digital Garage,” she points out. “Access to good-quality, well-recognised certifications is more accessible that ever with online learning.”
But McKenna advises people to think carefully before making a choice. “You don’t want to fall into the trap of the CAO where you choose something today and it turns out you are not really interested in it when you get around to doing it. There is a lot of free or low-cost content available for people to sample to see if something interests them and if it is right for them. You should choose a course or offering that matches your schedule and the way you like to learn. Maybe take a shorter course to get job-ready skills and take it from there.”
The typical UCD Professional Academy course is a three-hour session one evening a week for 12 weeks. “People get skills they can apply to their careers. They go on a journey, and they might find that interests them and go deeper after that. The short, sharp, condensed format really suits working people.”
And the old ways can still be best, according to Houlihan. “On-the-job learning is as important as ever. Be curious about other people and expose yourself to expertise and learning from peers, thought leaders and people you admire about what they do and how they do it and why.”