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The future of work: talent attraction and management


We’re living through an era of constant change. It’s a historical period the Hopi Indians refer to as powaqqatsi or ‘life in transformation’ - a time defined by endless socio-economic, geopolitical and demographic upheaval, underpinned by rapid technological advancement. The mainstream media enjoy labelling this tumultuous epoch a new age of uncertainty and there are a range of opinions offered about ‘where we’re heading’, which can be sifted into an abundance of micro and macro contexts. 

Anyone surfing the web for information on the latest developments in HR and talent attraction over the last twelve months has certainly found themselves compelled to click on an array of links proclaiming revelations about what the future beholds – the future of work that is. The overarching theme of these digital scatterings is that traditional jobs are being replaced by machines. Myriad statistics have been offered by various reports, some more defined than others. In Europe, it’s anticipated a third of jobs could be lost to robots, whereas in the US commentators are claiming potentially 47%.  A more considered analysis is offered by Mckinsey & Co’s 2016 report which highlights that around 60% of occupations could experience 30% or more of their ‘constituent activities’ automated over the next ten years.

The types of roles we’re told are under threat are mid-skill level administrative and technical ones in sectors such as law and accountancy as well as manufacturing and production - types of functions and areas where workers have historically (and rather cynically) been referred to as automatons, due to the mechanical nature of their remits.  As it stands, according to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), there has been an overall net-loss of these types of jobs worldwide due to ‘disruptive labour’ changes – the number of which is expected to rise to 5.1 million by 2020. As with anything, however, there is a positive as well as a negative spin on these apparently irrevocable developments in the future of work.

In economics, we often hear the Schumpeterian theory of ‘creative destruction’ bandied around and it definitely has credence in this area. Jobs are being lost at an alarming rate, but there have been some incremental gains in new types of employment. The hope is that we will eventually see a cascade of new professions emerging out of this transitionary period. Indications of this hypothesised tipping point are good – a lot of today’s most in-demand occupations, for example, didn’t exist ten years ago - and a recent London School of Economics (LSE) backed report added further weight to this hopeful outlook on the future of work. In 100 Jobs of the Future, researchers identified various anticipated roles, many of which sound implausible to us today, like Mind Reading Specialist and Weather Modification Police Officer. It’s clear that as technology progresses and improves, new opportunities and specialisms emerge.  

The essential ingredient to eradicating the net-loss gap is making sure workers have the right skills to succeed in this envisaged future of work. Technological change will result in a wide range of traditional ‘core skills’ becoming obsolete and all industries will be impacted by this. There will still be core skills, though, and according to the above mentioned report, those skills will probably be more multifaceted and specialised, hence the urgency for training. The WTO provides a useful insight into what some of these desirable qualities of the future of work will be. Its research gives particular importance to data analysis and technical sales skills, envisioning an age where organisations will need more in-depth knowledge of data, as well as experts who can understand and commercialise increasingly complex products and services.

In addition to those ‘scarcity skills’ we hear a lot about such as STEM (Science, Technology and Mathematics), programming and software development, academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Digital Business go a step further and argue how a demand for creative expertise like writing, NPD and even art will also rise in the future of work. The Pew Research Center also states that creativity will be a major asset for workers during the next decade, but adds factors like critical thinking, teaching, persuasion, empathy and judgement to the mix too – basically any adroitness that is ‘uniquely human’ and therefore difficult to automate. 

The emergence of new specialisms and jobs and the subsequent need for training in the key skills required to fulfil these imminent opportunities and disciplines is one of the ways in which society is adapting to technology. Another feature of our adaptability, however, can be seen in the way in which working life is changing too. There has already been a great deal of impact on a number of historically ‘fixed’ attributes associated with work – things such as hours (how long you work, when you start and when you finish), location (remote offices, home working) contracts (the rise of the freelancer) and career (a move away from the ladder to the web).

Working hours have been in incremental decline, across Europe, for over sixty years and a recent report by PwC highlighted growing demands from workers to be released from the ‘constraints’ on 9-5 employment. Similarly, research by Dell has revealed how remote or home working is on the rise, with over 50% of global employees now working remotely more than once per week. With regards to freelancers, in the UK for example, it is anticipated that as much as 20% of the workforce will be employed in a freelance capacity, within the next six years. This move towards specialist and portfolio work is also dismantling the traditional career path of moving ‘up’ through an organisation. Working life isn’t what it used to be and working life will continue to evolve.

The implications of the seismic changes in jobs and skills, as well as working life, for recruitment and talent management, is far ranging. With regards to recruitment, there is already widespread competition for talent within the fields fed by STEM skills - a situation which will only get worse over the next five years -  and with the prospect of jobs becoming more niche and specialist, firms across all industries will begin to struggle to fill current and emerging roles. To get ahead of competitors, companies will have to become more scientific in their approach to identifying talent – or indeed seek recruitment partners that can demonstrate rigorous search methodologies that give more emphasis to candidate attributes’ over job experience.  

This point ties in directly to one made earlier. To provide a more thorough investigation of specific candidate attributes, recruiters will also have to capitalise on emerging skills and technologies that will enable them to maximise their data and achieve these desired results. LinkedIn’s Global Recruiting Trends 2016 report indicated that recruitment in the future will utilise databases built on complex algorithms, together with data savvy researchers, to ensure all possible ‘fit factors’ are considered during a search.

Having robust ‘smart data’ capability, however, is only one aspect of how recruitment is changing. In today’s digital economy, recruiters are also finding they must use multiple on and offline channels to promote their brand to attract new business, and their jobs to attract candidates. An interesting article by Recruitment Grapevine outlines a typical recruitment process involving predominantly content generating activities such as Email, SMS and social media, in addition to headhunting calls. There have been a few articles written over the last 18 months which have asked the question ‘Is Recruitment turning into Marketing?’ and with recruitment agencies and internal recruitment departments tending to stand out when they’re publishing and sharing content, the answer would seem to be yes. Recruitment, like other professional sectors, therefore, will need to rely heavily on creative skills in the future of work.

The challenges for talent management are equally galling. We have already discussed how working life is rapidly changing. The rise of flexible hours and remote offices, facilitated by advances in technology, are factors increasingly demanded by workers who are realising how new technologies can release them from the associated ‘constraints’ of work. If their demands for greater freedoms are not granted, then they move elsewhere. Or, thanks to an abundance of new and emerging tools, may transition to a freelance career. Many professionals across different sectors and disciplines are now choosing this route.

It is well documented how modern organisations are adapting to the new world of work, by creating ‘enriching environments’ in an effort to make their talent want to stay. We covered this briefly earlier this year, referencing initiatives such as those which support personal growth, health and wellbeing and the development of a workplace culture, as well as aligning the organisation with charitable or environmental bodies. There is also the acknowledgement, however, that not all businesses are the same, and different approaches are needed in different contexts. Thinkers in the field of work are emphasising the importance of ‘people analytics in helping HR departments design the best-fit ‘employee experiences’ and the need for companies to embrace change with an attitude of ‘trial and error’ rather than cautious distrust. 

The director of the iconic ‘Qatsi’ trilogy of movies, Godfrey Reggio, said that ‘Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe… we are no longer conscious of its presence.” Humans will continue to become ever more dependent and integrated with their technology. The impact this is having on work is already huge and work as we know it will continue to change.  Organisations that refuse to adapt their tools, invest in the acquisition as well as training and development of skills, and completely rethink their environment, risk being left behind.

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