Future-ready workers

Six steps for finding the skills companies need in fast-changing markets

Richard Humphreys
14 January 2019

6 min read

The rapid pace of technological change is demanding new skills from today’s workers – skills that employers have difficulty finding due to low supply and intense competition. To survive, business and education leaders recommend companies employ these six strategies for filling short-term gaps and ensuring long-term success.

The way we work and learn is transforming at an accelerating pace, and that means major changes for both employers and workers.

“Machines are doing jobs no one expected they’d be capable of performing,” said Parminder Jassal,group director for Work + Learn Futures at the Institute for the Future in California. “Meanwhile, full-time employment gains are shrinking, and more people are working on a temporary, part-time basis.”

Although an increase in automation usually means higher unemployment, millions of high-skill jobs worldwide are going unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants. As a result, employers are more likely to retrain existing employees to fill new roles, rather than replace them with younger workers already trained in modern skills. “Companies need to support employee development of skills continuously, facilitating the broader development of skills beyond a technical specialty,” Jassal said.

To help employers keep their firms well-staffed, employment experts recommend a six-step approach.


The Institute of the Future projects that 65 percent of the jobs today’s students will do in their careers haven’t been invented yet. To succeed in hiring and training, therefore, companies must anticipate the jobs and skills they will need in the future and work with schools to create programs that will prepare students to fill them.

“The rise of artificial intelligence and robotics means that more roles will become automated,” said Craig Sweeney, senior vice president of Global Strategic Talent Solutions at WilsonHCG in Tampa, Florida. “With this increase of automation, demand for high-level skills and competencies based around leadership, innovation, problem solving and creativity will become heightened.

“Employers will have a responsibility in that process to upskill their workforce. It is, therefore, in the interest of employers to support and drive change in helping to develop new skills.”


To develop the skill sets they need, companies also should customize their learning and development (L&D) programs to meet their specific needs today, as well as their strategic direction for the future.

“Employers should consider key roles within the organization and what training is required to help employees develop up into those roles,” Sweeney said.

L&D should be considered from multiple angles, including role, industry sector and geography, Sweeney said.

“Segmentation allows companies to cater education to groups of employees for a personalized and effective approach.”

In a 2017 study by the World Economic Forum, 72 percent of responding companies said they will reskill existing employees to address the shifting skill needs created by advancing technologies. Two-thirds of companies said that they expect workers to acquire skills in the course of their changing jobs. Companies also expect to provide additional training to a small percentage of employees for specialized roles.


Partnering with universities through internships and other specialized programs will help employers ensure that students graduate with the specific skills they will need in the work world.

“We work with business leaders as we develop programs,” said William Watson, general manager of Husson University’s Southern Maine campus in Bangor. “They help us identify the knowledge and skills employees and new hires need. Once courses are developed, we provide educational resources to organizations through our Partners Program in ways that foster workforce development.”

Gregory Washington, dean of the Henry Samueli School of Engineering at the University of California Irvine (UC Irvine), also highlights the importance of partnerships. To date, he said, UC Irvine has partnered with 52 companies, creating valuable symbiotic relationships.

“We need companies and companies need us,” Washington said. “We need them to keep our research and the problems that we work on grounded in reality. We produce talent, and companies can have an influence on what that talent looks like.”


A diverse workforce can be an effective recruiting tool and innovation booster.

“When you have a diverse team, you get a diverse set of solutions because people come from different perspectives,” Washington said. “Those perspectives are a part of how individuals live their everyday lives and how they solveproblems. That problem-solving mechanism is important for companies, so having that diversity of thought leads to a broader range of answers – and that leads to better alternate solutions.”

Diversity also has helped Washington achieve his hiring goals at UC Irvine, in part because diversity attracts more diversity by making all prospects feel welcome.

“Where we’ve made our biggest growth has been on the faculty side,” Washington said. “We’ve hired 53 faculty members in the last five years, and 19 of those have been women, multiple times the national average. One third of my department chairs are women. Next year, half of my department chairs will be women, and that’s unheard of.”


Lifelong learning has been an afterthought for decades in many companies, but that is changing. “If it [lifelong learning] is built into every single job profile, where it is incentivized and encouraged in the right way, we will see more employees taking advantage,” said Till Leopold, project lead for the Center for the New Economy and Society at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Switzerland.

International defense and cybersecurity company Raytheon, for example, has introduced its own educational module – The Inclusive Leader – which is designed to help leaders better understand the scope and challenge of managing and leading in a diverse workplace. In its “2017 Corporate Responsibility Custom Report,” Raytheon reports that more than 90 percent of its leaders completed the course, which participants rated as “overwhelmingly positive” in their course feedback.

Like many employers, Raytheon also reimburses full-time employees as much as US$10,000 (8,767 euros) per year for university tuition for approved courses. The Raytheon Education Assistance program aims to help employees improve their job performance by encouraging and incentivizing them to engage in ongoing education.


The World Economic Forum estimates that one-third of the skills companies will need in 2020, just a year from now, are not being routinely taught in schools today. Until schools and universities catch up with employers’ needs, that means many companies won’t be able to hire the workers they need on a full-time basis.

Contract workers – people who have skills an organization needs but who may prefer to work on a wide variety of projects for a wide variety of companies – can help employers fill immediate skill gaps, expand a company’s capacity for special projects or help with short-term staffing crunches.

And now, finding such workers is easier than ever, thanks to the rise of online hiring platforms that help to match contract workers with employers who need their services, workforce solutions firm Catalant points out in its 2018 “Reimagining Work 20/20” report.

Once hired, digital innovation platforms help contract workers operate with the effectiveness of a full-time employee, facilitating collaboration and providing access to authorized corporate information and processes via a simple web browser connection.

In addition to filling short-term and specialized needs, hiring contract workers can be an effective way to identify candidates for full-time positions. Many contract workers, in fact, use their contract work to “shop” companies they might like to work for, enabling them to observe their cultures firsthand. “The potential upside is enormous in terms of opening up opportunities for people,” Leopold said.


Employers face a difficult challenge in finding and developing the talent they need, but these six strategies will help them meet existing needs while nurturing future skills. Workers, meanwhile, will benefit from the stability of long-term employment with employers committed to upskilling them rather than replacing them.

With this new security, however, comes new responsibility – the responsibility for employees, not just employers, to make lifelong learning an integral part of every workday. 

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