Back in May, the McKinsey Institute asked businesses to “imagine a crisis that forces your company’s employees to change the way they work, almost overnight. Despite initial fears that the pressure would be too great, you discover that this new way of working could be the blueprint for the long term.”
It’s something business leaders all over the world are now having to figuring out, as their countries either emerge from lockdown or hurtle back into it. The question hanging over everyone’s head is: what does our workforce look like in five years’ time, or even next year? Will we go back to ‘normal’, or is there a better way to service customer demand?
In 2017, McKinsey estimated that 375 million workers—about 14% of the entire global workforce—would have to switch occupations or acquire new skills to remain competitive by 2030. And that was before a once-in-a-generation global pandemic. Just this year, 87% of business executives acknowledged severe skills gaps in their organisation, and less than half had a clear sense of how they were going to fill them.
Faced with shrinking budgets, “massive” IT talent shortages, and the emerging impact of automation, companies are being forced to embrace the ‘H-word’. Hybrid. About one quarter of all jobs in the U.S. are already showing signs of ‘hybridization’—that is, a combination of skillsets, both hard and soft, that never used to exist in the same position. Marketers who understand data analysis. HR executives with cybersecurity training. Web teams with service design and product management skills. Designers who can handle front-end development.
Redundancies are a tragedy—between March and April, almost 600,000 Australians lost their jobs, and experts believe many of those positions will not be coming back (according to the bleakest predictions coming out of America, 42% of layoffs will result in permanent job loss). But faced with unprecedented challenges, companies also have an opportunity to transition their remaining talent into vital technical roles. The ‘hybrid’ trend has been coming for a while—we’ve been reading about it, in one form or another, since 2015—but COVID has pretty much cranked the dial to ‘hyper speed’. We’ve never needed such a wide-ranging employment overhaul in such a short space of time.
“While I felt there already was an aggressive timeline needed to prepare the workforce for what’s to come, there was no predicting just how swiftly COVID-19 would speed up this challenge,” says Gabe Dalporto. “We may have to call this moment for what it is: automation’s transition from potential threat to welcome solution.”
The silver lining is that ‘hybrid’ jobs have been found to be among the fastest-growing, the highest paying, and the most resistant to automation. In other words, hybrid jobs are future-proof jobs.
“As jobs get reshaped by new skills and new technologies, there are also clear opportunities,” writes Burning Glass, “for employers to upskill existing workers and develop more effective talent pipelines; for workers to make themselves more competitive by acquiring new skills ahead of the market; and for education institutions to deliver learning to the broader community of workers who will increasingly need to acquire new skills.”
There is a risk here, which Burning Glass acknowledges: the hybrid employment trend is reliant on investment from businesses, and a lack of investment will only deepen many of the existing divides in the workforce. Some employees will gain ground in the future economy, and some will slip backwards, especially if their company doesn’t prioritise upskilling into areas like AI, machine learning, cybersecurity, data science, DevOps, Internet of Things technology or cloud solutions. According to the World Economic Forum, there will be 58 million opportunities for employment in AI and machine learning, for example, but only 300,000 people with the necessary skills to fill those roles. These talent gaps have to close for companies to remain competitive in the market.
COVID-19 has revealed several truths to be self-evident. The future is lean: businesses will have to achieve more with fewer resources. The future is agile: companies will need to upskill their workforce to meet the challenges of automation and AI. The future is hybrid: workers will need a hybrid skillset to remain relevant, and that skillset will need to be nurtured by their employer. And most of all, the future is full of opportunity: COVID-19 isn’t the end of business, but it is the end of business as usual.