As the workplace and our working lives continue to be reshaped by technological advancement, there are a myriad of changes that organisations and individuals need to adapt to. A desk may not be always the most productive place at which to work, colleagues may no longer be located on the same continent, and career progression may not always be in the shape of a ladder pointing upwards.
“We are living in what is probably the most complex era in work,” says Paul Healy, chief executive of Skillnet Ireland, the national agency focused on workforce learning. “Technology in the workforce is nothing new,” he says, “but what is different is the rate of advancement, and the pervasive nature of it. Technology and automation are reaching into sectors of employment that we would never have thought possible before.”
The question for both employers and employees is how to stay competitive and relevant amid such rapid change.
“What is being more and more understood by employers,” suggests Healy, “is the importance of developing your workforce.”
While concepts such as 'lifelong learning' and 'upskilling' may have been part of the corporate lexicon for many years, there has been a recent push to implement a wider system of retraining and education. A 2017 report on Lifelong Learning Participation Among Adults showed Ireland flagging far behind other EU states, with only 7 per cent of the workforce engaged in lifelong learning programmes, compared to Denmark with 31 per cent , Sweden with 29 per cent and Finland with 25 per cent.
To meet the target set in the National Skills Strategy, Ireland’s rate of participation in lifelong learning needs to double to 15 per cent by 2025. While many multinationals are engaging in upskilling, there is a noticeable gap in smaller businesses partaking. “Multinationals are productive workplaces and they are competitive workplaces, and one of the reasons for that is their ability to adapt,” says Healy. “The fact is that they train and upskill, and do a lot of management development, and smaller firms are not doing that.”
Engaging with the process of lifelong learning is an essential part of adjusting to the future, according to Healy, particularly as developments in artificial intelligence and automation continue. “We do know with certainty that lower-level tasks that involve rudimentary intellectual processing and human intervention will be replaced,” he says.
And while job displacement may appear negative, Healy suggests that handled correctly, it can lead employees to a better position. “We are working with many employers who are being proactive and researching the implications of this to consider how to support staff, how they can be upskilled, how they can be trained into new roles or redeployed to other roles so that they are not vulnerable to this displacement,” he says.
“You can grow through this, through upskilling you are turning a problem into an opportunity.”
It is easy to think of how upskilling can involve tech training and development, but the automation of tasks could also free up workers to develop the kind of uniquely human functions that machines are not capable of. It is a prospect that Healy is enthused about. “I am talking about skills like creative thinking, like strategic thinking, like leadership, like empathy, like building and maintaining relationships, like resilience,” he says, suggesting that a market for people competent in these areas will grow into the future, almost in parallel with the market for new technology. “That way value is co-created,” he says, “but for that to happen we really need to put a much greater emphasis on the ability to be strong, and to grow in the context of what are becoming more and more challenging workplaces.”