Knowing that automation and other technologies will soon transform its work and workforce, Amazon recently announced it will invest $700 million to provide “upskilling training” for 100,000 of its employees between now and 2025. The program, aimed at reaching a third of its U.S. workforce, will focus on high-growth areas such as healthcare, machine learning, manufacturing, robotics, computer science and cloud computing.
“The future of work is now and the challenge is not just adapting to new technologies, but adapting to the dynamism of the economy, which will only accelerate,” Jason Tyszko, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, said in an Amazon press release. “Amazon is demonstrating the new role employers must play to counter that challenge, fostering a new relationship with workers where maintaining and growing their skills is an imperative for business success.”
Research from McKinsey estimates that between 75 million and 375 million individuals (3–14% of the global workforce) could be forced to switch occupational categories by 2030. So, while this is a wise business decision for Amazon and a welcome move for its employees, it should also serve as a wake-up call for leaders across the country. As Ellyn Shook and Mark Knickrehm wrote in a report for Accenture: “Creating the future workforce—now—is the responsibility of the very highest levels of an organization…There may never have been a better opportunity to get ahead of this issue. And never a greater risk of inaction.” Here are three ways leaders can prepare their teams for the automation age.
1. Promote Learning and Reskilling
According to research from Manpower, 46% of today’s global employers face difficulties filling jobs—the highest percentage in 12 years. Nearly 40% attribute this to a lack of hard skills or experience; an additional 29% blame a lack of applicants. As automation and technology progress, this gap will likely grow: When Deloitte surveyed 2,000 global executives, they cited their top talent challenge as the “mismatch between current skill sets and those that will be needed in the future.”
To groom their team members for roles in the future workplace, either within their company or in an entirely different industry, leadership should place a high priority on education and reskilling. “The key to navigating through the coming automation age will be identifying and retaining (retraining) the employees who can make one transition after another,” wrote Christophe Knoess and others in the Harvard Business Review (HBR). Or, as Mara Swan, executive vice president of global strategy and talent at ManpowerGroup, told Accenture: “I really believe the CEO needs to become the Chief Learning Officer of their company.”
For one large-scale example, leaders can look to AT&T. The company, which has spent $1 billion on a multi-year reskilling initiative, claims that more than half of its 250,000 employees have completed courses in high-growth subjects such as data science, cybersecurity, and Agile project management. “You can go out to the street and hire for the skills, but we all know that the supply of technical talent is limited,” Scott Smith, AT&T’s senior vice president of human resources operations, told the HBR. “Or you can do your best to step up and reskill your existing workforce to fill the gap.”
2. Create an Empathetic Talent Plan
Up to 30% of the hours worked around the world could be automated by 2030, according to another McKinsey report. Even as much as 20% of a CEO’s working time could be automated by using technology to analyze data, make staff assignments and review reports. Given these predictions, it is up to leaders to assess how the future will affect all levels of their organizations, and all the individuals within them.
“If I’m a CEO, and I’m looking at the impact of automation, I’m really looking to understand how that changes the talent plan for my organization,” Tara Wolckenhauer, vice president of global human resources strategy and planning at ADP, told Talent Economy. “If we know that bots are coming, and we don’t have the staff that can interface with that type of technology…The time is now to put those people in place.”
In addition to hiring and training, that plan could include redeployment, as McKinsey explained, by “unbundling the tasks within a job and then rebundling them in different ways.” It could also include shifting segments of the workforce to higher-priority tasks or redesigning processes and structures throughout the company. If a talent plan must include layoffs, leaders should prepare for that as well. When Nokia laid off 18,000 employees, for example, its Bridge program, which features grants, training and job search support, enabled 60% of departing staffers to know their next step the day their jobs ended. This type of empathetic leadership and foresight will be crucial in the years to come.
3. Leverage Flexible Talent
Increased automation of routine tasks will lead to increased specialization—which PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts will lead to a talent war for highly-qualified workers. While leaders can attempt to lure these “pivotal people” with financial incentives, flexibility will be important, as well. That is because Millennials, who will soon compose 75% of the American workforce, are known for their autonomy: 74% are interested in freelancing and 40% say they intend to leave full-time employment within the next five years.
Though two-thirds (67%) of organizations are interested in flexible talent, a mere 8% strongly agreed they could “engage easily with this valuable resource when needed.” Leaders must therefore create structures that integrate these flexible workers into their pipelines—not only so they can readily access top talent but also so they can keep pace with technology. As Accenture explained: “Rigid, formal job structures do not support the speed and agility demands needed in the face of digital innovation.”
Even legacy companies, such as General Electric, are including freelancers in their human capital strategies. Through its on-demand GENIUSLINK program, GE has completed more than 100 projects at a rate “50% faster than traditional hiring methods.” According to program founder Dyan Finkhousen, GENIUSLINK provides “direct access to a global network of freelance experts—with rapid collaboration to drive speed and productivity for General Electric teams and customers.”
Amazon’s $700 million investment into retraining employees is an indication, from the world’s largest retailer, that we are truly entering the realm of Industry 4.0. If leaders want their organizations and employees to survive the transition, they must lay the groundwork now. “Businesses will be on the front lines of the workplace as it changes,” concluded McKinsey. “This will require them to both retool their business processes and reevaluate their talent strategies and workforce needs, carefully considering which individuals are needed, which can be redeployed to other jobs, and where new talent may be required. Many companies are finding it is in their self-interest—as well as part of their societal responsibility—to train and prepare workers for a new world of work.”
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