Automation will leave few roles untouched—and not everyone will be reskilled or redeployed successfully. Here’s what leaders can do now to give their talent, and their organizations, the best opportunity to thrive in an uncertain future.
Here is an excerpt from thed transcript of a podcast featured in the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.
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Where reskilling works—and doesn’t
Lucia Rahilly: Let’s start with some basics. Bill, what is reskilling, and how does it differ from on-the-job training and traditional learning programs?
Bill Schaninger: Reskilling has gotten an amazing amount of press, spurred by talk of automation. Will automation and other robotic processes replace people? Historically, you’ve only ever seen that in large-scale manufacturing roles, but now you see automation in roles that previously would have been unassailable—lawyers, medical professionals. Now the question is, “We have a group of employees capable of doing something today. How can we ensure they’re able to do something different tomorrow?”
The answer falls into three categories: “Redeploying,” or moving somebody elsewhere in the company. “Upskilling,” or taking the essence of what employees do and improving it—helping them become more advanced, more gifted at what they do. And “reskilling,” which is old school: training you in something new. That last one has gotten the bulk of the press coverage because it touches on things like purpose, social responsibility, employer obligation, and employee rights.
Rahilly: Bryan, do we have research that shows that companies can retrain workers meaningfully at scale?
Hancock: The research shows companies struggle to train people to do something completely different. What’s critical is to think carefully about the nexus between what a person is doing today and what that person could be good at in the future.
Take insurance claims, for example. Today, a computer can do pretty much everything a claims adjuster can do. From a picture of an auto accident, computer processing can figure out, using artificial intelligence, the damage to the car and how much it would cost to repair—and then spit back out what it thinks the insurer should pay on the claim. That traditional line of business is going away.
So what could insurance-claims agents do in the future? They’d make good sales reps. They’ve seen thousands of accidents, and they can say, “Hey, I know you don’t want that coverage. But let me tell you, I’ve seen when the tree hits the windshield. And your current coverage doesn’t protect that. You really should have it.” So thinking about that nexus—that’s what makes a big reskilling leap successful.
Rahilly: Are we mostly talking about skills in short supply now, or skills that will be affected five or ten years out?
Hancock: Both. Some companies are experiencing a shortage now. But if you’re only skilling to today’s shortage, you’re missing what you’ll need in the future. Here’s an example. Futuro Health is a partnership between SEIU-UHW and Kaiser Permanente to train healthcare workers in California. They’re looking at changes in the medical profession and seeing that the more basic parts of care delivery can be automated successfully—but they see a need for higher interpersonal skills. So as they design their training programs, they keep that future gap in mind.
Rahilly: Is there anything surprising about the roles at risk?
Schaninger: The early numbers on automation weren’t all that impressive. Maybe 30 percent of the workforce would have two-thirds of their jobs automated—mostly jobs that were already compromised or were on their way to being compromised. What was surprising was when they broke jobs up into tasks. Suddenly, something like 75 percent of jobs could have up to a third of their tasks automated. That made companies ask, “Are we forced to deconstruct and then reconstruct a job? What does that mean for employees?”
Hancock: Take a role that’s mostly manual data entry or aggregating information in a spreadsheet, plus a little bit of analysis and presentation. If the basics are automated, just being a star Excel jockey won’t cut it anymore. That person now has to learn how to present, how to think critically.
Often, we think of reskilling as about digital skills. But it’s also about the human skills that remain once things are automated. And about a lot of the white-collar jobs where dull tasks will be automated; that’s where much of this reskilling and upskilling focus is.
Bill Schaninger: The human element is vital. When you start pulling jobs apart and saying, “Hey, we need you to do these other things,” you’re forced to ask who employees are as people. Do they have any proclivity toward these tasks? What could we reasonably train them on? That’s the first real conundrum: accepting that the incumbents you have—no matter how loyal or even how good they’ve been at their jobs—may no longer be suitable. And that brings all sorts of questions of responsibility to the fore.
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