Why skills are the currency of the future of work

The UAE is proactively developing skills initiatives, including the National Experts Programme

People working in offices located in Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), Dubai, UAE.

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In this new era, skills are the currency of the future of work. Those individuals, companies and states that prioritise development will hold a massive competitive advantage.

This is why my co-author and colleague Kelly Palmer and I wrote our book The Expertise Economy. While much of the world has entered the age of digitisation, automation and acceleration, technology is not the most important asset in today's businesses. Expertise is. Technology is now relatively abundant, leaving expertise as the scarce, differentiating and most-in-demand resource.

Two profound shifts are reshaping the way businesses need to operate in order to remain competitive. This transformation requires us all to take a new look at how we educate and train our workforce.

The first involves information. It used to be that access to education was scarce. In that world, universities and employers had a specific role to play—to gather information and administer education and skill development programs. But now, information and education are abundant wherever people have access to the Internet. That makes skill development available at any time on any day, which makes the process of continuous learning a standard business expectation.

The second shift involves innovation. At scale, innovation has now outpaced our ability to develop expertise, leaving the global economy with a growing skills gap. This means that as we move into the future, there is projected to be a massive shortage of skills and expertise with unfilled jobs and economic opportunities missed because we cannot keep pace.

In their 2018 report, The Global Talent Crunch, the Korn Ferry Institute reports: “The major Middle Eastern markets in our study—the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia—both face imminent shortages of highly skilled talent. This means that by 2020 they may miss out, respectively, on about $14.5 billion and $26bn of unrealised output. Those figures will have surged, respectively, to near $51bn and $207bn a decade later.”

A global survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers found that CEOs now rank “availability of key skills” as a top threat to their organisation’s growth prospects. Meanwhile, a McKinsey study found that 62 per cent of executives believe they’ll “need to retrain or replace more than a quarter of their workforce between now and 2023”.

This means that any individual, company, or state that prioritises skill development and expertise will have a massive competitive advantage and an abundance of an extremely scarce resource.

There is a role for universities in this. They can partner with businesses to offer courses, including online, that teach new and emerging skills. Government initiatives can help as well. For example, Singapore launched a SkillsFuture program, providing all citizens with access to training programs.

The UAE is proactively developing skills and expertise initiatives, including the National Experts Programme. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, said, “It is essential that the country invests in its most valuable resource, [our] own citizens, to drive forward the nation for generations to come.”

Workplaces must take the lead by making learning a standard part of the job. As AT&T CEO, Randall Stephenson told the New York Times it's his expectation that employees who dedicate less than an ideal five to ten hours a week to learning "will obsolete themselves". JP Morgan Chase recently announced a $350 million investment in their "New Skills at Work" initiative, with chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon saying, "The new world of work is about skills."

So, how do you capture this competitive advantage and create an agile workforce that’s constantly learning and evolving? The answer requires three steps.

Leverage modern learning infrastructure. Jane Hart, the founder of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, said it best, "You will never again be able to keep up with the pace of business and everything everyone needs to know." The only way forward when innovation has outpaced the old methods of education is to leverage new technologies that enable personalised, continuous, agile learning.

Build a culture of continuous learning. Making learning available isn't enough; you need a culture that values and encourages it. As Kelly and I write in our book, "In a culture of continuous learning, learning becomes part of people's everyday work and a regular part of their day. In this way, it becomes a daily habit." Leaders should ensure workers have time to learn and help managers make that happen. Leaders can also set the right example by learning new skills themselves and sharing the experience.

Map skills. Business management guru, Peter Drucker famously said, "If you can't measure it, you can't improve it." If skills are the currency of the future of work, we must be able to measure and account for them. With the skills gap creating risks and consequences for organizations everywhere, it will soon become an imperative that every CEO and leader be able to answer: what skills do we have; what skills do we need?

Of course, it’s also up to individual employees, not just organisations, to be proactive about lifelong learning. In the Expertise Economy, each of us should always be engaging in development opportunities. To stay ahead, we should be setting learning goals, finding mentors, developing networks and taking part in diverse projects that will expose us to different skills and perspectives.

Innovation means pushing beyond the status quo. You have to go where others haven’t been, which necessitates you know how to learn and skill yourself. All of the very best innovators have been great lifelong, self-directed learners—Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Clayton Christensen are all on the record as having read the entire encyclopedia as children.

To become a great self-directed learner yourself, Kelly and I recommend the Learning Loop, which is composed of four stages: knowledge, practice, feedback, reflection. It begins with picking up knowledge through whichever opportunities work best for your learning style—instructional videos, podcasts, TEDTalks, shadowing an expert or taking a class. There are no one-size-fits-all systems for learning because people are complex and unique.

After engaging in the learning, practice what you’ve learned, either alone or with a peer. Next, ask people you trust for honest feedback—people who have context and related expertise in the skill you seek. Show them what you’ve learned, and listen to their advice. Finally, reflect on that feedback to determine what you need to learn next in order to improve. Go seek that knowledge, and repeat the cycle. I have seen the benefits of taking these steps every day.

But to overcome an ever-widening skills gap, experts must beget more experts. Only in developing, then sharing expertise, can this occur. This is in part the promise of the National Experts Programme: that today’s experts become the mentors of tomorrow. The program’s 20 Emiratis, who are learning, applying and being mentored at the highest levels to become the experts in sectors aligned to UAE’s national priorities, can then share that expertise with their organisations, helping to develop yet more experts, all to drive the country’s growth in the knowledge-based economy.

This holds the key to competing in the years ahead: that countries ensure all workers are empowered to keep learning and developing new skills. For the future truly belongs to the learners.

David Blake is co-founder of Degreed and co-author of The Expertise Economy