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The Future of Work | Working the Future
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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking


2021-03-02 17:58

Cathryn Barnard



It was uplifting to read last week that more than half of UK firms plan to hire staff in the next quarter – presumably a sign that as lockdown lifts...


It was uplifting to read last week that more than half of UK firms plan to hire staff in the next quarter – presumably a sign that as lockdown lifts, businesses are keen to get back to some semblance of normal. 


This is great news after a year of economic doom and gloom. It brings renewed hope for all those whose livelihoods have been adversely affected by COVID-19.  With luck, these plans to hire will bring UK unemployment levels down and revitalise our lagging economy. 


Before we embark on another hiring spree, however, let’s address a rather large elephant lurking at the back of the room.


Like most other countries, we have an escalating skills crisis, largely driven by the pace at which technology is evolving and automating our workplaces. Not even the most discerning employers can tell which digital skills will be needed five years from now, on account of some of the technologies underpinning those skills not having come to market yet. 


Technology is changing the shape and nature of our economy faster than we can keep up with.


In analysis completed late last year, the CBI identified that by the end of the 2020s, 21 million people in the UK will need to have acquired basic digital skills, 16 million will need to have developed critical thinking skills, and 14 million people will need to have rebooted their leadership and management expertise. That’s no small order. 


To be frank, there’s no way we’ll achieve this mass reskilling endeavour, unless hiring approaches are reimagined. 


For too long now, employers have elected to buy in the skills they need from the open market, with scant investment in the upgrade of those skills through workplace learning interventions.


When I was still recruiting back in 2016, all too often employers would tell me they weren’t prepared to invest in ‘training’, lest employees jump ship as soon as those skills had been acquired. I don’t believe much has changed.


But this attitude is a zero-sum game. If all organisations ever do is take from the labour market without replenishing it, we quickly end up with a skills shortage. The analogy to use here is a farming one – when we take from the soil without applying fertiliser, over-farmed soil quickly becomes barren and unproductive. 


And the hypothesis that staff will leave as soon as their upskilling needs have been met has been disproven by Gallup. Their research has revealed that providing ‘opportunities to learn and grow’ is key to retaining millennial talent, in 2021 arguably the largest workforce demographic. Beyond compensation, continuous learning and access to developmental opportunity are the primary drivers of both staff engagement and ultimately staff retention in the 2020s.


The UK skills crisis has already been exacerbated by Brexit and COVID-19. 


Last week, Bloomberg reported that in the past year, 700,000 workers have left London alone, with nationwide figures estimated at more than 1 million. While these numbers will of course represent a blend of skills and capabilities, there’s little escaping the fact that the UK economy has been underpinned by highly skilled migrant workers for the past twenty years. And this availability of highly skilled staff (particularly in the niche technology domain) has seemingly deadened the need for UK organisations to invest in skills development at a pace that matches technology evolution. 


As the UK economy prepares to open back up, in addition to focusing on the ‘where’ of work, UK employers planning to recruit shouldn’t overlook the ‘what’ of work. 


Let’s make sure we’re hiring for attitude. Learning agility is singularly the most important trait we need in our organisations right now. If we can’t identify the extent to which our organisations will be reshaped by digital, the ability of internal teams to continuously flex and adapt is key to longer term resilience and survival. 


Most people working today aspire to fulfil their developmental potential. Rather than insist on a shopping list of pre-baked skills, let’s expand recruitment shortlists to include those who demonstrate the passion for development and growth. 


When we can no longer predict with accuracy neither the hard skills we need within our organisations nor the duration we’ll need them for, then surely the character traits of adaptability and curiosity to learn are the next best thing? 


By default, when we embrace learning agility as a mindset, continuous learning at work becomes the norm. And with the twin challenges of both digitally turbocharged globalisation AND desperately needed economic recovery to navigate, we ALL need, as an imperative, to learn new ways of delivering value at work. 


Surely hiring for adaptability and curiosity is a no-brain choice to make? 


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Looking to dive deeper into some of the areas covered in this blog post? Check out our Navigating Talent RiskRecruitment and Retention and Foresight Focus reports and products.

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