What Skills Will Future Workers Need To Succeed?

Even if we can’t be 100% certain about the skills workers will need to succeed in the future, there are some things that can point us in the right direction.
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This is Part 6 of our New Talent Challenges Series. In it, we examine the new issues companies have to face when hiring talent, especially in the context of pandemic-related consequences that are still disrupting every industry.

We know that digital technologies have been completely changing how we work for years now. We are also aware of the need to develop new skills and capabilities to fully leverage those shifts. But we’re still trying to precisely define which skills and capabilities we’ll actually need to meet the challenges of the so-called new normal.

We might have some ideas, assumptions, and estimations as to which ones they might be—but we don’t have any certainty about it. That’s especially true today when we’re still going through a global crisis caused by a pandemic that has modified the business landscape entirely. The increased adoption of automation, AI, and robotic solutions brought about by COVID-19 has shown that people need to adapt to new technologies quickly or risk falling behind.

That’s why it’s understandable that both business leaders and people in the workforce are trying to find out what those skills might be to better prepare themselves for the future. That’s a hard challenge. But even if we can’t be 100% certain about the skills workers will need to succeed in the future, there are some things that can point us in the right direction. 

Determining Fundamental Skills 

I’m fairly sure that any of you can quickly think of a couple of skills that might feel instrumental for the near future. Abilities like critical thinking, communication, teamwork, self-management, data literacy, and even programming often pop up in job postings and applications. That’s how we’ve come to recognize that those skills are crucial for today’s business environment.

And while we’re sure that most of them will remain essential as we move ahead, the reality is that looking for skills that are as broadly defined as that doesn’t do us any favors. How can you assess if someone is a critical thinker? How do you train someone to become a better team player? What should people study when it comes to programming?

I’m certain that most of us have different ideas on how to identify and develop those fundamental skills. That’s why we need to start determining the skills we’ll need in the new normal with far more precision. But where do we start? First and foremost, we need to understand how the landscape is changing.

We’ve said time and again that we’re living in the age of digital acceleration. This implies that current businesses are adopting new technologies and digital solutions at breakneck speed. The goal? To increase their agility, flexibility, and resilience. Those 3 are fundamental traits for modern businesses, as they allow companies to better adapt to ever-changing demands and challenges.

That increased digital adoption means that more and more companies are using automated solutions, AI algorithms, cloud computing platforms, and data science tools. The confluence of all these technologies directly impacts the nature of countless jobs. If certain tasks are now automatic or done by robots, then what can human employees bring to the table? Added value.

That added value is whatever people can provide on top of what automated and smart systems can generate. If, for example, a system can process millions of data entries in virtually no time and even pinpoint patterns and make suggestions, then humans need to proactively see beyond those patterns and suggestions to find the relevant and valuable courses of action. 

So, any fundamental skill people need to develop from now on should follow that goal. In other words, the skills have to help the workforce add value to what the digital solutions are generating. That criteria can help us narrow down the abilities we’ll need in the future—but it isn’t enough.

To complete the picture, we also need to take into account other important criteria. For one, workers need to develop skills that allow them to better understand and operate the digital environment. If the business landscape increasingly relies on digital solutions, then it becomes evident that workers need to have a certain level of digital competence. 

But that’s not all. One of the main characteristics of the new normal is how quickly the landscape can change. New technologies, emerging trends, new crises, and new actors can rapidly modify and impact markets, which is why businesses need to be flexible and agile. Of course, people need to be equally adaptable. This means some of the essential skills for future workers will include developing a continually adaptable mindset.

Narrowing Down Abilities for the New Normal

From what I said so far, you could say that any skill that can help workers add value, operate in a digital environment, and quickly adapt to new challenges and demands is fundamental from now on. But putting it like that still feels broad and doesn’t really clarify the picture, does it? We need to take a deeper look at what those skills might be.

First, let’s think about the skills that might bring added value to future businesses. Our starting point can be the skills we consider crucial right now, mainly because we’re already understanding that modern jobs require technological, social, emotional, and higher cognitive skills rather than manual and basic cognitive ones. 

In that sense, we can use the skills we see as fundamental right now to further develop them. In that way, we can grasp what specific skills lead to broader ones. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, some of the essential skills of today include critical thinking, communication, creativity, teamwork, leadership, and digital competence.

All those broader skills are composed of smaller and more specific skills, which are the abilities the future workforce will need to develop to increase their chances of success. Let’s see what kinds of skills we can define from each of these:

  • Critical thinking. While you might say that logical thinking is enough to cover this one, the reality is that critical thinking implies more than that. Sure, it encompasses structured problem-solving and logic, but it also covers other skills such as the ability to search and identify relevant information, understand biases, and make connections. 
  • Communication. Great communication takes more than just speaking and writing properly. Abilities like storytelling, synthesis, active listening, and questioning are all aspects of communication that any worker needs for the future.
  • Creativity. This one is harder to break down because it’s hard to define what creativity actually entails. However, related skills to work on include the ability to adopt different perspectives and to translate information from different sources and contexts. Additionally, imagination, curiosity, and adaptability are also fundamental parts of creativity.
  • Teamwork. The ability to work harmoniously with others covers a lot of abilities and traits, including empathy, inclusiveness, collaboration, conflict resolution, coaching, empowerment, and negotiation. All of them are important for people to connect and understand each other in any environment.
  • Leadership. Someone might argue that not everyone needs leadership to thrive in the business world. However, having certain leadership traits can help them better navigate the post-pandemic workplace. That’s because leadership includes skills like integrity, self-motivation, decisiveness, autonomy, optimism, perseverance, and dealing with uncertainty, all of which can come in handy in multiple situations.
  • Digital competence. Finally, we’ve arrived at what might be the broadest skill category of them all. Digital competence means that workers need to know their way around new digital technologies. In other words, we’re talking about digital and data literacy, programming knowledge, cybersecurity understanding, digital learning, and digital ethics. 

I’ll be the first to recognize that not all of these are skills. In fact, I acknowledge that some of them are attitudes rather than capabilities, which means that developing them is more a matter of personal growth than professional training. But putting that difference aside, the reality is that the future workforce can’t ignore them, regardless of the name you use to define them.

This set of skills and abilities might feel hard to tackle and develop, especially if you’re a business executive trying to future-proof your workforce. But you shouldn’t see them as a challenge or as an obstacle to overcome. These skills should serve as a horizon you and your team should tend to. 

By knowing which kinds of skills will be necessary for the future, you can better devise more useful and relevant training programs to reskill and upskill your team members. Does that sound like hard work? It’s because it is—but it’s the only way to move forward and prepare for the new normal.

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