In this age of automation, the skill most prized by employers is not a technology skill. According to a recent IBM study, the top skill enterprises look for in an employee is ‘willingness to be flexible, agile and adaptable to change.’ This sought-after behavioural skill toppled the most critical skill of 2016, when executives ranked ‘technical core capabilities for STEM’ at No. 1.

As the pace of automation accelerates, the nature of jobs is changing rapidly across every industry, making skills obsolete faster. Learning, once considered a stage of life, now has to be a way of life for workers looking to adapt, stay agile and relevant. Students graduating in 2020 will need to start adding new skills right after college and throughout their working lives, just to remain employable. Through this volatility, upskilling has become the new insurance cover in the job market, ensuring stability and longevity in an unpredictable workplace disrupted by technology.

Finding the right cover in the age of AI

Bots are going to displace workers. That’s a reality we have to prepare for, with McKinsey estimating 52% of activities in India are at risk of automation. But as history has shown time and again, even as technology has displaced workers, it has created new jobs. The age of AI will be no different. NASSCOM points to jobs in AI, data analytics, cyber security, IoT and robotics being created faster than the jobs that are getting displaced. According to the World Economic Forum, while the rapid evolution of machines in the workplace will displace 75 million jobs by 2022, it will also create 133 million new roles. A trend that is already unfolding in India. When food delivery start-up Zomato announced job cuts, automating roles in its customer support team, it also ramped up hiring to a higher magnitude for its technology, product and data science teams.

Examining the impact of automation on industry, Cisco found the labour market has been “reconfigured” with displaced workers having to bridge the relevant skills gap required by new occupations. The spread of automation is making roles more dynamic, with jobs evolving at a faster pace than before. To survive and thrive, individuals will have to stay alert to emerging opportunities, upskilling to go after new, productivity-enhancing roles that automation will create.

Job protection in a changing skills landscape
The skills landscape has changed dramatically during this decade. Just 10 years ago, the most in-demand skills and occupations of today did not exist. (It was only in 2012 that Harvard Business Review heralded the occupation of the data scientist.) Automation technologies have since dominated the skills landscape. This year, we saw an AI sweep in the skills learners are vying to add. The top five ‘most popular online courses’ in India on Coursera all came from the field of AI – Machine Learning, Programming for Everybody (Getting Started with Python), Neural Networks & Deep Learning, AI For Everyone and What is Data Science? Interestingly, AI for Everyone, a course for non-technical learners, rose to ‘most popular course’ in the business domain, pointing to the ascendancy of AI capabilities, now valued by learners across job profiles and domains including the C-suite.

With the shelf life of skills declining, professionals now have to evaluate and acquire new skills over shorter periods of time. WEF estimates that the core skills required to perform most roles will change by 42% (on average) by 2022. In this demanding future of work, learning agility could become the single most important determinant for a worker’s success. CEO of IBM, Ginni Rometty offered an insight into how valuable this trait is, at a recent event in APAC. “An average skill, particularly in technology has got a half life of three to five years. You actually won't hire for skills anymore, you will hire for propensity to learn," she noted.

Among Asians, Indian's are most cognisant of this pace of change and what it will take to stay ahead. LinkedIn's Future of Skills 2019 APAC survey found that 82% of Indians surveyed believe that the skills needed to succeed are changing rapidly. Indians also lead in understanding the value and path to upskilling while in the workforce – 60% of Indians found online learning beneficial to career progression.

Insurance for a new kind of career and workplace

People today will work longer, changing jobs and careers multiple times. The employee of the future “typically will have a new job every five years, probably for 60 to 80 years, and probably every one of those will require skills you did not learn in college,” Huntington D. Lambert, Dean of Harvard's Division of Continuing Education, told the New York Times, while highlighting the imperative for continuous learning.

Professionals today are no longer tied to linear career pathways. They work on their own terms, seamlessly moving through multiple careers, or crossing over from structured workplaces to the gig economy. Without an enduring ‘Learning and Development’ safety net, the onus is now on individual professionals to consistently invest in their own skill development, building capabilities to improve their employability in every kind of workplace.

As organisations streamline processes to bring economic efficiencies and productivity gains from automation, traditional job roles will be replaced by more high-value jobs. Professionals will increasingly have the opportunity within their existing organisations or industries, to upgrade to these jobs by upskilling, boosting their careers, while avoiding stagnation and redundancy. Continuous learning, especially through flexible models like online learning, will provide individuals with the convenience to learn, as they navigate their careers and tremendously improve their earning potential – at the same time.

Millions of Indian professionals face a major transition ahead. NASSCOM estimates that with growing automation, about 50-60% of the Indian workforce will require re-skilling on a continual basis. To succeed, individuals will have to take a proactive approach, looking constantly to the future to build new capabilities and add in-demand skills. As continuous competency development becomes the norm, WEF predicts that by 2022, everyone will need an extra 101 days of learning. Just as we need insurance elsewhere in our lives for unexpected contingencies, upskilling is now an investment towards job security and stability – the only insurance that can protect in an uncertain future of work.

The author is managing director, India and APAC, Coursera.

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