The Skills Of The Future Are Now Clear: And Despite What You Think, They’re Not Technical

This week IBM launched a significant study which looks at the real skills business leaders need over the next three years, and the results will surprise you.

The research, which included surveys across 50 countries (5800 executives), found that approximately 120 Million professionals need to be reskilled to deal with AI and new digital business environments, and the biggest gaps are not “digital skills,” but behavioral skills.

I have been talking about this over the last year – this research reinforces the fact that while digital and technical skills are in high demand (41% of CEOs are worried), they can be filled fairly quickly. More than 45% of CHROs tell us people coming out of college have the digital skills they need: what they’re missing is skills in complex problem solving, teamwork, business understanding, and leadership.

The data is quite clear: “digital skills gaps” are being addressed: the leadership and behavioral skills are not.

If you look at this list, you see a set of topics we all deal with every day — trying to adapt to constant change; prioritizing our time to work on the most important things; learning to listen and collaborate in a team; and understanding how to communicate our ideas, findings, and recommendations in a compelling way.

These “soft skills” (that term has to be retired, by the way) are complex and behavioral in nature, and they represent what we now call the “uniquely human skills” that cannot be done by machines.

I’m an engineer, so I”m quite comfortable with technology. It’s now quite clear to me that my biggest opportunity to grow is to learn how to use all these tools, integrate them into my work, and build a team of people who can help our business grow and evolve.

Economic History Points This Out

Consider the data below. It plots the relative wage growth of four families of jobs.

  • Low social, low math (highly routine)
  • Low social, high math (technical but not team-oriented)
  • High social, low math (complex and managerial, but not technical)
  • High social, high math (complex and managerial and technical).

What it shows is that over the last 30 years, highly routine jobs have plummeted in value (ie. toll takers at the bridge, or simple assembly work). Technical jobs (engineers, for example) have slightly fallen behind, partly because the technology keeps changing and many technical jobs are being automated. Jobs with high social skills (sales, leadership, project managers, marketing) have increased in value, and those which require both technical and managerial have increased the most.

I lived this in my own personal life. I graduated from school with a BS and MS in engineering, and within a few years realized that engineering alone would not excite me and that engineering careers started out fast, but also plateaued early. So I ended up going into sales, marketing, and later management.

Most of you know quite well that the biggest challenges you have at work are not technical: they involved managing your time well, finding out how to work in a team, and learning how to influence, support, and coach other people.

Even the jobs of “data scientists” are becoming more hybrid, as research by Burning-Glass shows. Highly-paid data scientists are now expected to understand how to interpret data, consult with their internal clients, and communicate their ideas in a compelling and business-relevant way.

In the case of HR, I like to think about this as the “Full-Stack HR Manager.” (Full Stack refers to an engineer that knows everything from hardware to operating system to database to user interface.) We have to know a lot about all domains of HR, plus we need to understand technology, economics, behavioral science, and business as well.

What This Means To You: Time To Build Corporate Capability Academies

I”m in the middle of developing a new speech on this topic, but what it basically means is that just “offering a lot of digital training” to your employees is not nearly enough. You need to think about offering your people a wide range of development opportunities (as IBM points out in this paper), including formal development, self-directed learning, developmental assignments, and internal mobility. 

One of the things the IBM research points out is that while the half-life of skills is decreasing, the time to develop skills has gone up.  In 2014 companies estimated it took 3 days to develop the new skills they needed. Today they estimate it takes 36 days, ten times as long.

What this means is building what I call “Corporate Capability Academies,” focused on all the things you need to upskill, reskill, and engage people in the complex skills they need. As we have done in our own Josh Bersin Academy for HR, we bring together curated high-quality content, instructors and experts, developmental activities, and lots of collaborative learning. All this, plus certificates and rewards for advancement, are possible in your company – if you think about L&D the right way.

(Companies like Capital One and many others are starting to do this today.)

capabilities, academies, skills

These Academies are not only places to develop deep expertise: they are also ways to develop broad skills also, using what is now called the T-Shaped Skills model. (shown below.) In every domain there are both deep and broad skills needed, and our role in transforming teams is to help people develop both.

t shaped skills

I would argue, for example, that “digital skills” (understanding SEO, HTML, data analytics, visualization, AI, cloud systems) are now broad skills:  we all need to understand them to a degree. It’s only software engineers or cloud designers who need deep skills in programming, user interfaces, AI, and algorithms.

You may build a “digital skills academy” which focuses on skills which cross many domains, for example, then a vertical set of programs focused on digital marketing or digital HR.

I”ll be talking a lot more about this in the coming weeks, but take a look at this evolution and you’ll see where the world is going. It’s not enough to just “buy an LXP” and deliver lots of content for self-discovery. While this is an important step in the process, we need to go further. Developing the complex, hybrid, people-related skills people need in the future will be one of your biggest opportunities in HR and L&D. Now is the time to think about it.

We Are Excited To Be Working On This Problem

We are excited to be partnering with IBM, as we introduce our new program HR in the Age of AI, available in the Josh Bersin Academy starting in September.

I highly recommend you join the Academy and read this report from IBM, it will really change your thinking about what the “skills gap” in your company is all about.

PS Watch Diane Gherson’s in-depth discussion of the issue:  she explains this new world very well.