The New Workforce Ecosystem

The emerging workforce won't look like today’s workforce

Sally is 32 years old and lives in a large urban area with 3 roommates.  She has a degree in psychology and works as a customer relationship manager for a startup.  Her work is varied and consists of everything from suggesting services a customer might like, helping customers with problems, and assuaging angry ones. The skills she must juggle include excellent communication capability, the ability to understand the context of her customers’ needs and issues, and an understanding of how to influence and persuade.  She works about half the time virtually and was doing this even before the pandemic. But she is already looking for something different.  She is not married and has no interest in getting married, although she had been regularly dating before the lockdown. She does not know how to drive and uses public transportation, Uber, or walks. Her social network is extensive, and she communicates primarily via messaging tools like WhatsApp. She is thinking of leaving the city to live in a more rural area where she can have animals.

Tom is 35 and also lives in a large city with two other people.  He works from home doing a variety of things ranging from coding to writing fiction.  He has technical and communications-related skills and spends as much time as he can writing a book. The coding job is primarily to make enough money to get by.  All of his work is project-based and freelance, which suits him perfectly.  He has no desire to work for a company or be tied down to an office or regular working hours. Tom is unmarried, does not have a current girlfriend, and prefers the freedom and independence of this lifestyle.

Bill is 47 and is a programmer for a large tech firm. He has been working for this form for 15 years, and he worried is that his skills are becoming obsolete. There is no convenient way for him to upgrade them, and isn't motivated to spend the time required to learn the new skills. He and his wife have discussed starting a gardening business, and he is contemplating leaving his employer and moving to the country. Bill’s wife has a job where she can work anywhere. His children are teenagers and aren’t excited about the possible new lifestyle, but they think he is cool for doing it. Their school has an optional virtual schedule, or they could home school. The Internet has opened new options. Time and how the pandemic turns out will determine what he decides.

The New Worker

These fairly represent the new worker: skilled, agile, flexible, independent. They are not worried about security which they see embedded in their skills and ability to learn.  They find work or projects through their social and professional networks and are always ready for a new experience.

Having a broad and ever-changing set of skills is the key to both success and security. The concept of a job being relatively static with a fixed set of skills and competencies is fading. The historical attributes for success: college degree, GPA, experience, or years of service, and deep technical knowledge are less and less important.

The computer and the Internet have changed the landscape. With artificial intelligence augmenting our knowledge along with a vast array of tools and information sources online, it is quick and easy to look up whatever specific knowledge we need.  For example, if I want to know about the changes in the tax code and how to apply those changes to my situation, I need only to search the Internet.  Not only will I find information from the government, but also videos and articles explaining the nitty-gritty of the changes and even guiding me through the process of completing tax forms.  Therefore, we are less reliant on personal experts and more on their knowledge embedded in the cloud.

Likewise, an engineer can look up completed designs, find examples, and consult with other engineers about any issue she might have virtually.  Calculations can be done by computers, blueprints designed and printed autonomously, and checked automatically for code compliance. And more and more specific skills, how-tos, rules, and advice will be available virtually.

New Competencies

What is most important is to have the ability to understand the context of a situation and use human judgment to make a final decision. For example, Netflix can make suggestions about which movies to watch based on your previous viewing habits. But suppose you had been watching movies about or starring children and then lost your child.  Netflix would not know that and might recommend an inappropriate movie about children. Unfortunately, computers and A.I. are not yet capable of understanding the context of a situation, nor do they have human empathy.

More and more people with broad general skills and high ability to make decisions based on knowing the context of a situation, having empathy, and having the ability to learn will dominate the emerging talent economy. Many of these workers will not have traditional credentials but will be self-educated and will continuously learn from the Internet, television, travel, social media, and other sources. They will reply on augmented tools, online databases, and social networks for guidance and support. 

Firms such as Google are already hiring as much for motivation and the ability to learn quickly as they do for previously acquired skills.  Formal education is useful, but it is not enough.  People with the motivation and skills to learn and unlearn quickly are better able to adapt to change, new technologies and more likely to embrace the future.

The future workforce will be more independent, more broadly capable, better able to learn and adapt quickly, and more socially connected than any previous generation of workers. They will be less reliant on traditional jobs and ways of working and will construct their own work from the set of skills they have or can acquire.

A Typical Workers circa 2050

Somsak was born in Thailand but lives both there and in other Asian countries. He is widely traveled, speaks Thai, English, and Mandarin.  He does not have a college education, but he has built a career creating small restaurants and coffee shops.  He now owns six of these coffee shops in three countries and spends his time mostly virtually overseeing their operation and advising and training staff. He travels once-in-awhile to inspect them, but he finds that is increasingly unnecessary.

Over the course of his 38 years, he has learned international business law, finance, accounting, tax laws, salary negotiation, recruiting, real estate negotiation, dealing with different cultures, managing, and much more.  All of this has been self-learned through the Internet, his social network, a handful of experts he has consulted, and from experience. In addition, he has sought out mentors and has several older and more experienced colleagues who help with difficult situations.

Somsak has a broad set of interests, including Asian art, traditional dance, and literature. He is not married and does not own a house, but he is still close to his family and sees them regularly.

The Qualities of a 21st Century Worker

He characterizes the emerging, creative worker.  He has multiple skills, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a thirst for learning. People like Somsak do not find value in traditional educational models and are less and less interested in traditional corporate positions where the depth of expertise is rewarded along with obedience and compliance.

While he is very comfortable working in a team, he views the team as a network of associates and friends who share ideas and share rewards.

Automation has already permeated various fields, including retail, transportation, surgery, medicine, bookkeeping, accounting, education, and online learning. In addition, the pandemic has accelerated automation and proven that virtual work can be as effective and efficient as in-person. As a result, the concept of work itself and how it gets done is changing rapidly.

When looking at talent needs, talent leaders need to anticipate which jobs will be phased out and what new ones will emerge. As I have written many times, by narrowly defining jobs, we limit our ability to hire quickly and the potential for creativity and change. For example, IBM, Microsoft, and many other organizations are already establishing apprenticeships and lowering the requirements for employment to attract a wider and more diverse workforce.

We would all be advised to follow that model, urge managers to change their thinking, and embrace the emerging world of work as much as possible.

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