Issue 1: The Digital Skills Gap
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Today, I’ll be talking about the “digital skills gap”, based on one of the key themes from last week’s ‘Meeting of the New Champions’ in Dianjin, China.
With a title like that, the conference needed to deliver something pretty special.
So, we’ll be looking at:
- What was said at the World Economic Forum conference?
- The problematic language of the “skills gap”.
- Which skills are missing?
- Who is responsible for education?
- Some companies who are doin’ it right.
After, I’ll share some stories I’ve enjoyed this week.
July 1–3, World Economic Forum
Economic luminaries met to discuss the big questions in Dianjin, China. Most notably, ‘How can we prepare for the tech-dominated ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’’?
WHAT WAS SAID
During a discussion on Monday morning about the future of the jobs market, the panel of course agreed that technology is enabling new ways of working. However, there is no inevitability about how this will play out.
We are not in the service of a class of machine overlords, and “the market” is dictated by the combined actions of governments, businesses, and individuals.
And so, the focus shifted to potential scenarios and hypotheses.
Based on analysis of 15 developed countries, the sweeping stats were:
- Technological advances will render 75 million jobs obsolete by 2030. Mainly, these will be repetitive tasks that can be automated.
- However, 133 million new jobs will be created in the same period due to the impact of technology.
Carlos Moreira spoke about this “net-positive” effect in cautious terms. We are still looking at the job market through an analogue lens, which reduces the potential for serious change. For example, the approach to job descriptions and contracts is too rigid to respond to an ever-changing landscape.
As Ali bin Masoud al Sunaidy noted, “We are good at thinking in terms of ‘doctor’ or ‘salesman’, but not in terms of aptitudes.”
Some of the suggestions made in the “issue briefing” included:
- Break jobs down into component skills and abilities. (More on that later.)
- Create clearer paths from university to work, by collaborating on education curricula with universities.
- Ensure that bosses have (or at least understand) the digital skills they expect their team to have.
- Take an honest look at how much investment retraining will require. (See the Accenture example later in this email for one estimate.)
- Work with governments and other businesses to spread this mighty cost.
I’ll take a closer look at some of the key questions raised during the conference in the rest of our “Digital Skills Gap” focus piece this week.
Read a bit more:
On the other hand:
Maybe we’re in decline. This report suggested that we’re reaching the economic limits of innovation. “The rate of innovation reached a peak over a hundred years ago and is now in decline.” It doesn’t feel that way, but it’s a well-researched perspective.
“The Fourth Industrial Revolution may look and feel like an exogenous force with the power of a tsunami, but in reality, it is a reflection of our desires and choices.”
— World Economic Forum
Let’s talk about “the skills gap”, shall we?
In the face of a cold, ruthless, machine age, our reaction is reassuringly human. Emotive headlines dominate the skills gap media landscape.
Even the phrase “digital skills gap” reveals much about our thinking.
A gap is finite; it exists between two points.
We don’t seem to know either where we are today or where we need to be in the future. Yet, this is something to be closed, finished, checked-off so we can move onto the next “action”. It all feels aimless, because we can’t focus on a goal without knowing what it is.
If we keep talking about “closing the gap” and “completing learning plans” we will create a comforting illusion for a 20th century mindset.
The world will only change if we start to perceive it differently.
That starts with the language we use.
AN UPSKILL CHALLENGE
So, those meetings in Dianjin this week.
To bring back that notion of aptitudes as opposed to job titles, the categories below provide a useful reference point. Whereas a job may disappear, skills can be a little more pliable.
The ‘Future of Jobs’ report then breaks these down further, into those that will be more/less important for workers by 2022.
We can certainly quibble over the specifics here, but it is at least an attempt to create a dialogue around the question.
No think-tank, business, or individual will solve this one alone.
Accenture proposes a categorisation of tasks by “those that are augmentable” by using technology as a productivity tool, and “those that are automatable”.
An exercise like this makes it is possible to identify areas of focus for each industry, territory, level of seniority, and so on.
The human/technology balance will keep shifting, so we need to keep reassessing. After all, even the ‘data scientist’ role is changing all the time.
The consensus so often is that “complex problem-solving” is, no doubt, an important skill for the new technological age.
The ability to fuse perspectives into new solutions is certainly a highly valuable, human skill.
But we may be putting the cart before the horse, if you’ll excuse the anachronistic analogy.
As discussed in this wonderful essay, we need to know what the problem is before we solve it.
📕 Read a bit more:
+ Will a robot really take your job? Economist
- 7 skills that won’t be automated any time soon, from HBR.
“The exclusionary focus on ‘problem-solving’ in education is a mistake: education needs to address the more imaginative task of ‘problem-finding’ as well.”
— Kyung Hee Kim, William and Mary College
WHOSE JOB IS IT, ANYWAY?
Waaaaay back in 2015, IBM said, “Some estimates predict we could be up to 40,000 graduates short every year moving forward.”
This unit of measurement, “x graduates”, places universities in the role of commodity suppliers. Poor IBM isn’t receiving the goods it needs.
But most universities don’t exist to staff corporations with plug-and-play stiffs.
And are these businesses investing enough in the education system to shift blame so casually?
The global take on this question (which merits a newsletter of its own — get excited) is analysed here by Coursera.
One key finding: “The countries with the highest skill scores are, generally speaking, the richest.” The US is a striking anomaly.
However, some governments are taking a more innovative approach. The ‘Argentina model’ has received praise for preparing students for a tech-dominated workplace.
En France, employees have an Individual Right to Training, which places due importance on the issue. They really do love a law over there.
Without government involvement, we will simply be at the mercy of “market forces”, and we know how that tends to go.
📕 Read a bit more:
+ Women make up just 9% of leadership positions in STEM disciplines.Multiple studies (like this one) have shown that diverse teams are more innovative, which seems like precisely the kind of atmosphere we need today.
🤔 On the other hand:
Confidence in graduates’ digital skills is rising, according to Deloitte’s latest Digital Disruption Index. 18% of business leaders believe graduates have the right skills, up from 12% last year. I wouldn’t feel flattered, were I a recent graduate, but an increase is an increase.
“A diverse team will build better robots that address a wider range of concerns and do so in a more thoughtful way.”
— Catherine Ashcraft, National Center for Women & Information Technology
WHAT ARE ACCENTURE DOING ABOUT THE DIGITAL SKILLS GAP?
I am so glad you asked.
The Wall Street Journal wrote a good piece about Accenture’s plans last week.
There are a couple of important lessons in this approach.
First, Accenture is investing in “retraining” to move staff into very different roles that use their existing skills in new ways. Furthermore, Accenture are providing the required time for employees to do so.
However, this comes at a cost of $1 billion per year. Accenture has almost 500,000 staff, but that is still a hefty bill. After all, Accenture has no clear vision on how much of the investment it will recoup, or when.
On the other hand:
The ROI can be proved, according to research cited in The Telegraph. “Every £1 invested in digital skills today will be worth £15 to the economy by 2028.”
That sounds really clear and measurable, and yet it is so conveniently vague. I’m going to send them a letter in 2028 if this doesn’t happen.
Other company examples:
- Deloitte rounds up some digital transformation efforts in this glossy report. And here is the PwC approach.
- British Airways taps into the digital know-how of their employees and finds the additional digital talent it was lacking.
The unbearable whiteness of US charities — Vox
[Cartoon] The best year of my New York City movie-going life — New Yorker
Machine learning for long-lost languages — MIT Technology Review
TikTok’s Videos Are Goofy. Its Strategy to Dominate Social Media Is Serious — WSJ
[Report] How England’s job market shifted from 1550 through 1850
The Secret History of the Future (It’s back!) — S2E1: The Music business.
How does Google ‘rehearse the future’? — Google Design
Karl Popper’s Falsification (All of these videos are short, friendly, and breezy.)
The History of Postcards (a lot more interesting than you’d think!) — Google Arts and Culture