Concern about meeting the future needs of employers even extends down to current junior high and high school students. Conferences like the Great Minnesota Tech 2Gether and similar events in other states bring together business leaders, educators, and students to discuss future workforce needs and how schools can best prepare students for those opportunities.
Workers across generations are seeking guidance as to what skills will be in demand in the future. In The Real Millennial Challenge: The Skills Gap on the Future of Work blog, Meghan Biro lists literacy and numeracy (basic math skills) as important for the future, though they apply equally as well today. But she also lists “problem solving using digital technology,” a newer skill that’s increasing in value.
The Huffington Post suggests the ability “to work without direct leadership (and) act independently” will be a vital skill for the workforce of the future (though its hard to remember a time when this wasn’t important). This piece also states future workers “will all be data scientists.” But will they? Or will analytics applications eventually become Facebook-ized—simplified to the point where almost anyone can use them?
Coding is a hot skill right now, with bootcamps and weekend hackathons sprouting like mushrooms. But will coding skills still be valuable in 10 years? Or even five? As a writer in Forbes recently mused, “if a non-engineer can learn software engineering in three months, why can’t that work be offshored or even automated?”
The problem with asking what skills will be valuable in the future is that it’s impossible to answer. Until fairly recently, Flash development and design skills were in high demand. Good luck finding that listed as a requirement in any position description today. PC repair, PBX expertise, and any capability related to voice telephony are also recently valuable skills rapidly declining in worth, along with database administrators, manual software testers, and computer hardware engineers. Asking what skills will be needed tomorrow is the wrong question.
A better question is to ask what personal qualities or attributes will help safeguard one’s future workplace value. Which uniquely human traits will be both valuable and immune to automation or replacement by artificial intelligence (AI)? Cultivating the foloowing six attributes will be more beneficial and timeless than trying to chase specific skills.
Imagination, or vision, has always been an essential quality of entrepreneurs seeking to become captains of industry. Henry Ford imagined that automobiles could replace horses as the dominant mode of transportation for everyday people, not just curious toys for the wealthy. Walt Disney imagined that a plot of swampland in Florida could become a theme park with rides and attractions drawing millions of visitors each year.
But it didn’t take any imagination at all to work on Ford’s assembly line or dredge Disney’s swamp. The workplaces of tomorrow will be much different.
Two big trends are driving the increasing value of imagination in the workplace. First, automation is displacing more an more workers in low-level, repetitive tasks. There are simply fewer jobs where a person will repetitively perform explicit instructions.
Second, advances in all area of science are dramatically expanding the realm of the possible. People dreamed of space travel for centuries, but it was only a dream until Yuri Gagarin was launched into orbit in 1961. Today, unmanned probes reach ever deeper into space and a human mission to Mars may be less than two decades away. Elon Musk wasn’t the first person to imagine a high-speed train traveling through a vacuum-sealed tube (that was Robert Goddard), but he and his team have taken the idea further than ever before—because most of the technologies finally exist to make the idea practical.
We are moving ever closer to the day of “if you can dream it, you can do it.”
Most of us have vivid imaginations as children, but have much of this beaten out of us by the educational system and demands of real-world adulthood. Fortunately, imagination is like a muscle: even if weak it can strengthened by exercise. One of the best exercises is reading works of fiction, preferably ones that have never been adapted for TV or the movies. Reading forces us to imagine what each scene looks like, what the characters look like, and how they sound. To exercise both imagination and technical vision, read (quality) science fiction.
Cultivating your imagination should lead naturally to building your curiosity. To imagine is to wonder, and to wonder is to seek answers…to be curious.
Robust curiosity provides both personal and professional benefits. From a personal standpoint, when you meet someone new, displaying a sincere curiosity about who they are and what they do makes you naturally more likable. And if the two of you strike up a longer conversation, your curiosity about a variety of topics makes it more likely you’ll find subjects of common interest to discuss, and makes the discussion more fascinating.
On a professional level, curiosity will lead you to learn on your own—without being told exactly what to study and what sources to consult—which makes you a more valuable employee. Curiosity leads you to ask better questions, and thereby elicit more valuable, insightful answers from others. Curiosity separates you from machines. AI software can “learn” within a defined realm, and process enormous amounts of data. But it can’t wonder. It can’t independently move on to solving new, perhaps only peripherally related problems, based on what it already knows.
And curiosity is tremendously valuable in working well with others, particularly employees from other functional specialties and even other cultures. In a recent webinar for sales and marketing professionals on how to work more effectively with technical decision makers, workforce engagement speaker Babette Ten Haken explained:
“In my experience, perhaps the greatest – and perhaps the only – impediment separating technical and engineering professionals from business, sales and marketing professionals is simple, but profound. This attribute is the hallmark of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Curiosity. And not just occasional curiosity. I call this personal attribute: Relentless curiosity.
When you are relentlessly curious, you are not satisfied with the information your company provides you. You dig deeper. You engage in discussions with people who are not just the same as you are. You also engage with people who think differently than you do. You are comfortable learning information that makes you, at least initially, uncomfortable.
As a result, you gradually begin to create, and then hold, well-informed opinions as you grow your professional expertise…You engage and challenge other colleagues, just like those skeptical technical decision makers do.”
Collaboration is a uniquely human capability. Machines can communicate. Collaboration is more: it’s the combination of communication, empathy, negotiation, and creativity in working toward a shared purpose.
The term is often used in the music world in relation to songwriting; famous collaborations include Elton John and Bernie Taupin on most of the former’s greatest hits, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Walter Becker and Donald Fagan of Steely Dan, Don Henley and Glenn Frey of The Eagles.
One of the most influential collaborations in music was of course The Beatles. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison were all exceptionally talented musicians, but combined they had an impact like no band before them. The band eventually broke up because the four members lost their shared purpose.
A common though challenging example of collaboration in the business world is combining two companies in a merger or acquisition. Combining the systems used by the companies (HR, finance, CRM, email, etc.) is, if not quite simple, at least straightforward. It’s software integration, coding.
But being able to combine the people, products, and processes of the two companies to create a new whole greater than the sum of its parts takes collaboration—intense collaboration. This goes far beyond the capabilities of AI. Human individuals who can work together to effectively achieve this type of outcome will always have value in the workplace.
What it means as a practical trait or a quality that can be cultivated is the ability to solve problems by connecting unlike things; to find answers in unexpected places.
One of the most famous examples of serendipity in product development was the invention of the microwave oven by a Raytheon engineer who was working on improved radar technology for the military when he noticed his snack had been melted.
Some would argue the original iPhone was also the result of serendipity, as the underlying technologies Steve Jobs highlighted in its unveiling—mobile calling, digital music playback, and wireless web browsing—each already existed at the time, they had just never been combined and packaged in the revolutionary way Apple put them together.
Then of course there’s MacGuyver, the TV show and movie whose title character can get out of just about impossible jam using serendipity.
What does it take to harness serendipity? In addition to having some basic scientific knowledge across different disciplines, it’s really just a combination of the attributes above: imagination, curiosity, and collaboration with others to combine unlike ideas into new solutions.
Many of our parents or grandparents had one job, often with the same company, for their entire working life. Processes and technology brought change, of course, but that change was often gradual.
Those days are long gone. The one certainty about the future is continued rapid, even accelerating, change. Not just in terms of jobs or companies, but even careers, as automation and AI displace swaths of the workforce, while creating entirely new opportunities. Even those who do stay in one career will likely see multiple dramatic changes to the way they do their jobs over the course of their working lives.
The key to being adaptable is continual learning (another reason curiosity is important). Read Who Moved My Cheese for the philosophical underpinnings. Change is inevitable, so preparation is essential. Cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset will help you to continually adapt and manage your career, even if you never lead a startup.
A related concept is resilience—the ability to bounce back from setbacks. Resilience is a valuable quality, but adaptability is a prerequisite.
Charles Darwin famously said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Never has that been more true than in today’s workplace, and it will be even more so in tomorrow’s.
Wisdom is defined by Google as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.” A synonym is “discernment.”
Computers can store vast quantities of knowledge, but not wisdom. Knowledge is knowing that one plus one equals two. Wisdom is knowing that one plus one will not equal two for long without fidelity and shared commitment.
Wisdom has always been essential to business success but will mean even more to individual career success going forward, because of our increasing reliance on data. Data can’t answer every question, and it certainly can’t tell us what questions to ask. Curiosity (see above) is valuable because it leads us to ask questions; wisdom leads us to ask truly important questions.
Machines can be smart, but they can’t be wise. And in many cases, people can’t even be wise when it comes to predicting what machines and AI will be able to do (or not do) in the future, as Rodney Brooks (wisely) reminds us when he notes, “Mistaken extrapolations, limited imagination, and other common mistakes… distract us from thinking more productively about the future.”
Wisdom is generally associated with age, and it’s a vital quality older employees often bring to the workplace. But the correlation isn’t perfect; there are some older workers who don’t seem to have picked up much wisdom along the way in their career arc, as well as younger employees who seem, to use an old phrase, “wise beyond their years.”
The best way for younger works to build wisdom (other than getting older) is to learn from the experiences of others. Listen to older workers. Be curious—question them. Read a mix of books; the latest thinking as well as classics that have stood the test of time. A noteworthy example is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Written in 1936, it still forms the basis of almost every sales book and training program offered today.
So—what skills will be most valued in the workplace of tomorrow? There’s no way to know. Automation, machine learning, and AI will change the jobs of tomorrow, but in ways we can at best only partially envision today.
But whatever changes technology brings, the six attributes listed above will serve tomorrow’s (and today’s) workers well. Focus on cultivating these personal qualities and you’ll not only be in a better position to adapt to the future, but also to help shape it.