Weaker than expected economic figures on both sides of the Atlantic this past week have produced the usual debates over the accuracy or otherwise of the numbers, the reasons for the shortfalls and, especially in the U.K. – where a general election campaign is drawing to a close – what tweaks in economic policy might make a difference. But all of this is to ignore a fundamental issue. Thanks to the twin forces of technology and globalization, the world of work is being changed irrevocably. In western countries such as the U.S. and the U.K., today’s new recruits cannot expect to enjoy the same career paths as their parents did, no matter what the politicians promise them. And, barring some sort of revolution that nobody has yet foreseen, it is not going to become better any time soon.
This stark picture was described earlier this week at a one-day event in the City of London attended by human resources specialists from some of the largest organizations in the world. In a wide-ranging keynote address, Professor Lynda Gratton of the London Business School and founder of the Hot Spots Movement, which hosted the day, discussed how technology – particularly , the advent of more and more advanced machines capable of doing many routine tasks – threatened to break the career ladders that workers had traditionally climbed. “Technology has disrupted jobs and it’s now disrupting talent models,” she said. By this, she meant that there was a threat to the old idea – still largely adhered to – of large companies aiming to recruit the best people they could find, training them to carry out the work they needed done and then trusting that this, combined with sufficiently generous wages and benefits, would be enough to retain them until retirement.
While a report for the U.K. Government has suggested that fears of a “hollowing out of the workforce”, with many middle-level jobs taken over by automation, are overblown, Gratton pointed to a study by Oxford academics that suggests that 47% of U.S. jobs are at risk from computerization. Although there are signs that automation could affect more higher-level positions than people think, the main victims of this will be in the middle of organizations. A key effect of this is that it will deprive businesses of roles into which they can move newly trained employees to help them prepare for more senior posts. Effectively, there will be a chasm between junior and upper levels that organizations will have to find a way of bridging if they are not to have serious problems finding executives in the future.
Perhaps more worrying for them is that, according to Gratton, the most talented young people large organizations are seeking to recruit will see the limitations and opt not to join in the first place. Instead, they might decide to work for themselves, set up their own businesses or sign up for agency-type operations that provide them with work in different places rather than throw in their lot with a single employer. There are already signs of this happening and if it accelerates large employers could find themselves hamstrung by a shortage of appropriate recruits.
Some employers are aware that something is changing and are having internal discussions about what sorts of people they need. A key debate is over whether they need generalists or specialists or, if the answer is both, in what proportion. Others are looking at new methods of recruitment. Advertising agencies and other marketing businesses are exploiting young people’s love of computer games to use challenges within them as a recruiting tool, while businesses looking for engineers set tasks online and take on whoever comes up with the most impressive answers. Still others are looking at recruiting from places other than universities. Many Western European countries have maintained a policy of encouraging apprenticeships – and employers and policy makers in Britain and America are becoming more enthusiastic about them once more.
What seems abundantly clear is that the existing talent model cannot be relied upon to deliver in the future. At this stage it is not clear what a new one – if it exists at all – would look like. But that should not prevent HR departments from examining the field and trying some new concepts. Doing nothing is not an option.
This article was written by Roger Trapp from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.