News reports and blogs are filled with references to the need for reskilling and upskilling large swaths of the global population over the next 5-10 years. Reskilling initiatives abound in government legislative agendas and corporate strategic plans. As a society, we see the need for reskilling as technological advances and automation make existing job roles obsolete and create new job roles that didn’t previously exist (e.g., artificial intelligence and robotic process automation).
In its seminal work, published in January 2019, the World Economic Forum lays out a compelling case for a Reskilling Revolution rooted in the supply/demand realities of future job markets. Its follow-up report, published in January of this year, identifies specific job clusters in which the demand for reskilling will likely be highest. Both reports are recommended reading for academics and learning professionals, business executives and government officials who are responsible for shaping corporate strategy, institutional planning and governmental policy related to economic growth fueled by human ingenuity.
For those unfamiliar with these studies, following are key highlights:
- Sixty percent of corporations surveyed view skill gaps in their local labor market as the primary barrier to adoption of new technologies such as data analytics, the internet of things, machine learning, wearables, etc. Forty-six percent of respondents indicated that a lack of leadership capability is a barrier to adoption.
- Human skills such as emotional intelligence, leadership and social influence, creativity and critical thinking rank among the top 10 emerging skills for the next decade.
- The “professional job clusters” identified as areas for the most change over the next 10 years are not exclusively technological. Sales, marketing and content, as well as people and culture, are on the list of the top growth areas for the jobs of the future.
In this article, we will take it as a given that the future of work will be meaningfully different from the jobs humans perform today and that a Reskilling Revolution is necessary. We will take as given that significant skill gaps exist in local and global labor markets. We will further assume that while the primary driver of skill gaps is the adoption of myriad new technologies, skill gaps are also prevalent across the spectrum of human (a.k.a., soft) skills.
A Reskilling Revolution will depend critically on a mentally agile workforce that is willing and able to change as the demand characteristics for labor change. A Reskilling Revolution will also rely on the adoption of lifelong learning as the baseline condition for labor market participants. I contend that a broad swath of the global workforce has not practically adopted a lifelong learning approach, nor has it adopted the mental agility to change and grow. My hypothesis is that while a Reskilling Revolution is the right tack to take and a noble goal, its execution will collide with populations that are not prepared for change, nor do they view lifelong learning as the key to their future success.
Meet the clay layer
The clay layer (or permafrost) of an organization is the set of middle management and individual contributors who have become disillusioned regarding the prospects of their careers and subconsciously (or in some cases consciously) resist change. Their views have calcified over years of Sisyphean work projects, sustained exposure to poor or neglectful management, and real or perceived lack of career progress. Rather than viewing the prospect for change with wonder and excitement, change is dreaded and approached with extreme caution. Instead of taking a “we can” or “let’s get going” stance when confronted with change, this group digs in their heels and says, “if we resist long enough, this too shall pass.”
Resistance to change is a natural tendency and stems from fear of job loss, perceived loss of control and a desire for certainty. The need for security and safety ranks just above the need for food, water and shelter in Maslow’s hierarchy. Both change and learning rely on a human consciously wading into uncharted territory and being purposefully uncomfortable. Hence, doing the hard work of adopting a lifelong learning attitude, and being agile and accepting of change, runs counter to our human nature.
The most important thing we need to do right now
Most of the conversations I’ve been engaged in regarding the Fourth Industrial Revolution — and the Reskilling Revolution that must accompany it — center around the types of jobs that will change, the skills and competencies that will increase in importance, and the efficacy of delivery mechanisms for retraining and reskilling.
There is a key ingredient in those conversations that needs to take center stage now. We must recognize that the clay layer exists in government, academic institutions and corporations of all shapes and sizes. We must elevate discourse around the contradiction between the need for change and reskilling with the realities of the human condition and the base needs for security and certainty, which evidence themselves in unproductive ways within organizations.
To punch the point about how challenging a Reskilling Revolution will be, I’m only referring to organizational permafrost in this article. These are the humans who have already been educated, have had some level of career success and presumably sit at least at level 3 or above in Maslow’s hierarchy. With so many people around the world wondering where their next meal is coming from, how will we instill the desire to embrace change and adoption of a lifelong learning approach in at-risk populations? How will we achieve the World Economic Forum’s objective of “better education, skills and jobs for 1 billion people by 2030?”
Recommendations for leaders
To ensure we’re effectively growing our economies in 2030 and beyond, it is our responsibility as leaders of businesses and communities to promote the importance and benefits of lifelong learning to our youth. We must also bring the reality of the existence of the clay layer in our organizations from the shadows into the light. We must invest in these individuals with impactful, measurable training and engagement opportunities.
The benefits of mentorship and coaching are not to be underestimated to help the permafrost see the wisdom in purposeful discomfort. Remember, being purposefully uncomfortable is a necessary condition to true learning and growth — having a coach or mentor who can lead the way is critical to the change-management and learning processes. This investment in people is the warmth that melts permafrost. It is the nutrient that helps transform clay into productive soil.
Why is activating the clay layer so important?
If we activate the clay layer, we will develop more advocates for change and reskilling in our businesses and communities. More conversations will be had in our homes, schools and businesses about the benefits of agility and lifelong learning. Activating the clay layer will create more examples for others to follow. Senior management and policymakers can talk all day about the need for change, but the only way it will actually happen is to create an army of agile problem-solvers who take the challenge seriously and promote the benefits of purposeful discomfort to others in their sphere of influence.
Most important, middle managers hold the key to talent identification and talent management within an organization. While not all middle managers are members of the clay layer, a key component of a manager’s responsibility is to evaluate performance, identify talent and recommend that talent for growth opportunities. Unfortunately, the “accidental manager” does not come into the job with honed talent-management skills, and members of the clay layer routinely shirk their duty as professional managers to do the hard work of properly developing and engaging the members of the workforce who directly report to them.
The point is that to effectively implement a Reskilling Revolution, we will need middle managers who are willing, able and unafraid to identify and recommend talent for reskilling. Unless — or until — they are coached accordingly, accidental and clay-layer managers are likely to be unhelpful in that process because they haven’t built the muscle and mindset for growth and development of the individuals for whom they are responsible.
Where to begin?
Even if the World Economic Forum and other proponents of the need for a Reskilling Revolution to close the skills gap are only half right, we face a daunting challenge to reskill hundreds of millions of humans across the globe over the next 10 years. The problem seems so big and audacious with myriad interdependencies that the starting line is unclear.
I’m proposing we draw the starting line at winning the hearts and minds of the disillusioned within our organizations by investing in their development through coaching, mentoring and skills development. Middle managers must be activated as partners in the Reskilling Revolution, and it is incumbent on business leaders and corporate decision-makers to identify, unlock and develop the growth mindset critical to the lifelong learning approach that will drive us forward. By doing so, we can create a chorus of voices advocating for change and fuel the investment needed to cultivate a relevant, productive workforce.