It’s hard to imagine a time when businesses, employees and everyone else looked ahead with such a mix of enthusiasm and uncertainty.

Automation, AI and the soon-to-be ubiquitous Internet of Things are opening up a whole realm of possibility for how we will live and work in the future.

What we do know is that the successful businesses will be those who harness technology and innovate to stay ahead, some high-profile examples include Dyson and Arm Holdings.

The workplace of the future needs people who have specialist technical skills to develop and manage technologies that help business function. It also needs people to do the things that machines can’t such as think creatively, show empathy, work as part of a team and adapt quickly to change.

So far, so obvious. But how do people keep up in this fast-changing environment? Agility and collaboration have emerged as the hallmarks of successful business cultures. And skills like the ability to work with diverse people from different backgrounds are key to that. A report by fast food brand McDonald’s identified that skills such as team work and communication are worth £88 billion in total added value to the UK economy1.

Agile mind, adaptable skills

However, agile organisations need agile people. The job landscape is fast moving, it’s difficult to predict what roles, and skills will be needed even in the medium term. Before 2008, when Apple first launched its Appstore, there was no such thing as an app developer. A recent study by the World Economic Forum also highlights this fact, noting that many jobs – such as sustainability manager, big data analyst and drone operator – didn’t exist ten years ago.

People must take responsibility for keeping their skills and knowledge up-to-date, which requires an open and flexible approach to learning. And with 48% of employers expecting to face a shortage of suitable candidates this year, there are also clear benefits for employers in supporting them. Skills areas which UK employers offer formal and informal training is still largely focused on technical and professional skills at 57%, but there is a clear increase in tech-proof skills training such as collaboration and teamwork at 41%2.

The role of business

There are big benefits for those organisations which ensure their own employees meet their skills needs, rather than having to constantly recruit experienced hires. As old roles disappear and new roles are created, retraining the existing workforce will be crucial to meeting these new skills needs. Otherwise organisations risk incurring significant costs in restructuring, disruption to the business, poor morale and being dependent on the recruitment of expensive new talent.

Across industries, we have seen innovative approaches to this:

  • Reverse mentoring – where a senior member of staff is paired with a junior member so they can learn about the latest technology updates – is increasingly popular
  • Informal methods – there’s a growing appetite for more flexible methods with the one-day, one-off training seminar diminishing in popularity in favour of approaches like allowing staff to take 15 minutes to watch a YouTube tutorial
  • Job rotations – or short term secondments, either within the organisation or with customers and suppliers is seen as a great way to develop people  and give them invaluable hands-on experience, not to mention the associated benefits to the business of strengthening its relationships with its customers and supply chain

The key thing is giving people the time and opportunity to develop.

Hands-on experience is really important and it’s incumbent on business to provide what schools and colleges cannot through, for example work experience programmes and paid internships. One goal I would like to see realised in this field is the government’s objective of training three million young people between 2015 and 2020, which is only achievable through proactivity on the part of the business community.

The sticking power of apprenticeships

More traditional routes, such as apprenticeships also have a part to play. And now the Apprenticeship Levy represents an untapped opportunity in the battle for talent. There is a common misconception that apprenticeships are the sole domain of school leavers coming into blue-collar trades, but this is not the case. Apprentices can be of any age and there are no restrictions, the opportunities also now go all the way up to Level 7 qualifications (equivalent to a masters degree) and can include recognised degree and masters programmes and professional qualifications.

This provides an opportunity to retrain someone, moving them from a redundant role to fill a new skill gap; or for example to develop the next generation of the organisation’s leadership team.

Professional diversity

Diversity has long been recognised as important for driving innovation. Attracting and developing talent from diverse backgrounds has commercial value for this reason. We need to make sure not only that people refresh their skillsets, but that more people have access to skills development and training. Independent studies offer a compelling commercial argument for diversity and inclusion:

• Our Vibrant Economy Index3 highlights that the most prosperous regions in the UK are those with top ranking scores for ‘inclusion and equality’

• A McKinsey report4 found that firms in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to outperform firms in the bottom quartile for gender diversity. The same trend applied to ethnic diversity, where those in the top quartile were 35% more likely to perform better

The extension of traditional graduate programmes so they incorporate school leavers, and the introduction of the apprenticeship levy will almost certainly result in an explosion of degree apprenticeships. In 2015/16 there were 640 degree apprenticeships growing to 4,850 in 2016/175.

Moves such as these, together with initiatives like throwing out the requirement for minimum academic grades and replacing them with more sophisticated assessments based on overall competencies and potential (something we’ve fully adopted at) will quickly increase the diversity of people coming into organisations across the country.

Think differently to win 

Employers and employees each have a role to play in refreshing the skills pool so that they can both keep up in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Businesses are ideally placed to prepare new entrants for a lifetime of agile working and keep their employees’ skillsets refreshed. If they don’t, they risk falling behind their competitors.

Above and beyond this, collaboration between business and government, educators and employers will be key to supporting the skills landscape.

It won’t necessarily be easy, but together we can create a modern approach to skills and education which will contribute to a future of work where organisations and people thrive.

For more information please contact Justin Rix.


  1. McDonalds - Backing of soft skills
  2. Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC) - UK employers face growing candidate shortages in 2017
  3. Vibrant Economy Index, Grant Thornton, 2018
  4. Why Diversity Matters, McKinsey, 2015
  5. Universities UK - Degree apprenticeships: realising opportunities
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