Over the last two hundred years or more, and particularly since the first Industrial Revolution, we have developed a relatively stable concept of employment. We had a clear idea of a job that you started doing in your late teens and stayed in for the next 40 years or so, often with the same employer. After that, with luck you retire and spend some years enjoying not working before the inevitable. However, in the last 20 years, those ideas have been turned upside-down.
As life expectancy increases, we are all recognising that we will need to work until we are older to fund the retirement that we want. The concept of a ‘job for life’ has all but vanished. In all honesty, few of us even expect to be in the same field for the whole of our careers. We want variety, flexibility, and opportunities. For individuals, that means learning, developing, upskilling and reskilling on an ongoing basis so that we can take advantage of those opportunities.
This model of work is challenging for many employers, and it is taking time to adjust expectations. The initial approach taken by many was simply to hire in the skills needed. They certainly did not expect to provide or support any general training opportunities for their workforce, lest they should leave to work elsewhere. However, this approach has given way a more nuanced understanding that retaining good employees is important.
Making changes to business structures and organizational hierarchies, and introducing more flexible ways of working have therefore crept in as ways to support retention. There is also growing understanding that workforce development is likely to play an important part in employee engagement and retention in future.
The future starts now
It is also rapidly becoming clear that employee development matters now, as well as in the future. The world of work is changing rapidly. New technologies and shifting market demands are creating a demand for new skills and knowledge, and these are not always available in the marketplace. Instead, organisations are having to be more creative about how they acquire skills.
Perhaps the key change in this area is the rise in the use of data and analytics to drive decisions—or rather, the desire to use data and analytics to drive better decisions. Most organisations now have access to huge amounts of data, and recognise that they should be using it to improve their insights and decisions. However, far fewer have access to the skills that are needed to achieve this. Many senior managers are therefore turning back to use of intuition and ‘gut feeling’ because they simply cannot read the data well enough to make effective use of it.
Data science skills have been a shortage area for some years now. Universities are doing their bit to expand courses, and there is a lot of thought going into . Key to this is employer commitment to short- and long-term workforce development, and investment in the right tools for data management and analytics.
Short- and long-term employee development
In the short term, I believe organisations need to invest in two key areas: the right tools to support access to analytics, and training for employees in how to use these tools to get insights from data. The rise in self-service and ‘drag and drop’ analytics platforms mean that it is much easier to provide access to data for everyone. However, many employees still lack the basic skills to take advantage of this access. A dual-pronged strategy is therefore necessary: Simpler tools and supported skills development.
In the longer term, organisations need to focus on developing a learning culture. They need to encourage employees to develop their skills on an ongoing basis. This might be in specific shortage areas—and here again, data science springs to mind—or more generally. A learning culture is encouraged by initiatives such as mentoring and shadowing programmes, a budget for training and development (perhaps to attend courses such as ), or dedicated time off to pursue learning opportunities.
In combination, short- and long-term employee development strategies can provide organisations with access to the skills they need to thrive in the future. They will also improve employee engagement and retention, and therefore productivity and innovation. We cannot necessarily predict what skills will be needed in future. However, we can predict the conditions that will be needed to encourage people to develop those skills—and we can put steps in place to create them. The future starts now.
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