Increasingly, business leaders are realising that their long-term success relies on the skills of their workforce. Without the right skills available, organisations cannot work effectively, they cannot expand their products and services or develop new innovations.

It’s something that has become more evident in the information age because digital and data literacy is now in high demand. Unfortunately, that demand has led to a significant (and growing) skills gap.

Two thirds of employers expected to face some kind of skills shortage in 2018, with Brexit predicted to worsen this shortfall. Those that do have skills that are in-demand, often command lucrative pay and benefit packages from a wealth of potential employers.

A solution to the skills gap

One solution for employers is to recruit and train from within. Encouraging employees with the right ambitions and basic skills to take up more advanced training such as programming and data science. However, a critical step in achieving this is to find those employees in the first place.

Suffering from blind spots

Many organisations suffer from blind spots when it comes to the skills in their workforce. This is partly due to disparate HR systems and a lack of consolidated employee data.

The increase in side gigs and passion projects hasn’t helped either. Many employees won’t proactively tell their employer that they’re doing a course in Mandarin or have learnt the intricacies of eCommerce in their spare time.

HR needs to take the lead

The onus is on HR leaders to actively engage with their employees to learn about their long-term ambitions and relevant skills. Then to store, update and use that information if-and-when the time arises.

Pulling all the required information together into one system and breaking down the silos that exist between different HR tech is another step. Yet, ironically, it can be scuppered by a lack of employees with the skills to do this.

The challenges of the future of work

Of course, that becomes more difficult when you consider the many changes coming in the future. It’s difficult to know exactly what hard skills we’ll need in a few years because the work environment is going to be so different.

Automation is expected to lead to job losses in some industries, blockchain will change our reports and transactions, and artificial intelligence (AI) may cause entirely new jobs (like AI ethicists) to be created. In fact, 85% of the jobs that today’s students are expected to be working in by 2030 haven’t even been invented yet.

Softer skills may be in-demand

Indeed, in the automation era, it’s expected that the softer and more human skills will be in-demand. Because AI and machine learning will take over routine tasks such as data cleansing or filling in a spreadsheet.

PwC's Alastair Woods explains: “What we are hearing from our clients is that future success will rely on tapping into those rarer human skills, like judgement, empathy and innovation as automation takes the more tactical, process driven jobs away. It will be harder to find these rarer skills in the future.”

Soft skills are hard to track

But therein lies a problem for HR leaders. Softer skills are harder to test for and to quantify. They are often a footnote in many CVs and not something that employees will actively identify and discuss in performance reviews. It’s also tougher to develop them. You can send someone on a course to learn to use PowerPoint but you can’t necessarily teach them empathy.

They are also qualities that aren’t traditionally captured by HR systems. In other words, it’s another skills blind spot. For businesses to cultivate and encourage these soft skills in employees, they need to put them in the system. Soft skills need to appear in candidate screening, in annual reviews, and any HR technology systems used to track employee skills.

A failure to store adequate skills data

That said, some businesses fail to store and track employee skills at all. Which poses a problem. Work is becoming more project-based, which means that permanent employees may not always be the workers who do the work.

Freelancing is on the rise, as is the gig economy (especially the white collar one) and that means a team may now comprise of several permanent and non-permanent workers. To place the right people in the right teams, up-to-date skills data is vital.

To prepare for the future, you need to know the present

Since businesses have some responsibility to prepare their workforces for the challenges of the future, they need to have a baseline understanding of the current skills available. That way, they can predict what skills are likely to be needed.

Woods advises: “The first task will be to understand the existing skills you have in your current workforce, at a deeper level than many currently do. So whether it is a housebuilder, bank or retailer, being able to identify and plan for the gaps by using data analytics in recruitment, global deployment and focussed development, will be critical.”

A significant change

But it will require a significant change for some organisations that are reliant on legacy technology and outdated learning models. Time is fast running out for organisations to prepare their workforce (and themselves) for the coming decades.

Begin the work now

HR leaders need to begin the work now, by identifying where the blind spots are in their organisation. Failing to find your blind spots will leave your workforce weakened in the long-term and less resilient to the many changes ahead.

By understanding the current skills gaps in your workforce will help you train and prepare people for automation, AI and anything else the future of work may hold.

Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash.