Skills in demand, skills in decline

As a new normal emerges, it is apparent that ruling out the strategies that don’t work is just as important as identifying the ones that succeed. Taking a similar approach to skills data — by looking at skills in decline as well as those on the rise — will better prepare all of us for…

We may look back on 2020 as the year when the future of work truly arrived. The question for learning and development professionals is how to take stock of a difficult, tumultuous year and navigate what is ahead. Now, more than ever, the decisions we make around investments will determine how our talent navigates the volatility. A consensus is growing that views skills as the new microcurrency for those investments, and we now have a granularity of talent data that enables us to analyze our workforces at levels never before possible.

To be transparent, even with that growing mound of skills data, it’s a pretty rough go. Skills data is overwhelming, messy and lacks structure. The irregular nature of the data makes generating insights at scale and building sustainable processes around skills evaluations chaotic, and that chaos mirrors the current state of affairs. As a new normal emerges, it is apparent that ruling out the strategies that don’t work is just as important as identifying the ones that succeed. Taking a similar approach to skills data — by looking at skills in decline as well as those on the rise — will better prepare all of us for the future of work and the turbulence in our current environment.

Some tough questions need to be answered that shape your skills investments: How will managers communicate with direct reports about COVID and vaccines? How will increased climate disasters like forest fires and hurricanes impact your products and services? How will a new presidential administration and a shift in policy on numerous fronts in Q1 and Q2 of 2021 impact your internal policies? Answering these questions requires us to shift the emphasis of our skills investments. We believe skills should be viewed on a spectrum from durable to highly perishable — and that the skills required to survive and thrive beyond the pandemic are as durable as they come.

We can gather some insights from the otherwise messy skills data because the drivers of these current trends are clear. It’s apparent why skills like remote collaboration or empathy are in higher demand now (and why skills such as event planning are in decline). On top of that, the trends we’re witnessing this year are more exaggerated than in previous years. The pandemic, widespread protests for social justice and a slew of climate-related disasters hit nearly simultaneously. As a result, we’re all acutely aware of changing dynamics. This situational awareness makes it easier to leverage skills data into actionable insight now and build practices that we can carry forward through and beyond today’s challenges.

Take skills data from labor market analytics firm Emsi, for example. Their data provides a clear, and perhaps unsurprising, map to the areas that require attention — and those that have become less important. The most notable trend, perhaps, is the volume of perishable skills in declining demand — R, Agile, Unix — platform- or organization-specific tools or languages that remain important for some but are increasingly volatile. Fluency in these programs takes a back seat to more durable and stable skills. Emsi’s data also reveals skills in less demand — like patience and planning — that demonstrate the ways COVID has shifted our working styles from proactive to reactive.

On the flip side, there’s been a surge for skills like mental agility and stamina. This is a tumultuous time. We’ve all been forced to pivot and reconsider strategy on a monthly, if not weekly, basis. Agility has become a key enabler in our capacity to move forward. Ethics is another skill area seeing an increase in demand. This is an area that, undoubtedly, will continue to surge beyond the pandemic. As our organizations adapt to automation and AI, the increasing generation of and reliance upon data, and efforts to foster equitable working environments, skills like ethical decision-making and trustworthiness will be more critical than ever.

Developing these types of durable and in-demand skill sets can be hard. Historically, if employees don’t arrive “naturally endowed” with these skills, they are often left to develop them on the job. How do you teach or develop skills like mental agility, for example? This is where skills clustering can help. Grouping skills into clusters can help us see how skills are interrelated and how we might more easily invest in a family of skills. Rather than targeting mental agility in isolation, you might target its cluster by also addressing skills like navigating ambiguity, working with incomplete information, and developing organizational and self-awareness. Mental agility falls into the same cluster as those skills and will come as an added bonus alongside that broader family of skills within your organization.

Broadening and diversifying durable skill sets becomes especially critical in smaller workforces. These teams need to distribute skills among fewer people. At a small organization, you need more jack-of-all-trades types to respond to this volatile environment without grasping at straws to hire the right talent for the moment. David Epstein’s book, “Range,” makes a compelling case for a heightened emphasis on growing generalist skills across multiple disciplines versus narrow expertise in one field. Building these skills into an existing workforce rather than “buying” them is more sustainable — and more rewarding — because the skills grow organically in the context of your organization and its mission.

As you consider building skill clusters into your workforce, it’s crucial to go about it equitably. Leadership, especially the director-plus population, typically receives the bulk of investment in durable skills, with the expectation that those skills will “trickle down” to the front lines. Successful companies recognize that it’s just as important to develop those skill sets in the front lines as it is among leadership to build both long-term talent mobility and short-term talent responsiveness. That’s why Walmart, for example, embarked on an initiative to cross-train their associates in the midst of the pandemic and the approaching holiday season. They recognize that by broadening associates’ skill sets now, they’ll be geared for success beyond the pandemic and well into the future of work.

Just as cities with diversified economies fare better in difficult times, companies should make the same consideration. Their workforces need diversified skill sets that can ride out the tough economic times. Focusing less on the latest tools or methodologies and more on durable families of skills enables your employees to shift quickly and gives your business partners the agility needed for quick, strategic pivots.

The future of work is upon us. Are you and your talent ready?