Help Wanted: Workers With Future Skills

Posted: September 20th, 2016


The unprecedented rate of high-tech invention and the constant discovery of new information has created a “learning economy” where the ability to adapt to change is essential. Succeeding in this economy will require all employees to be “working learners” who are comfortable constantly upgrading their abilities and acquiring new knowledge through both formal and informal channels. These working learners will need an evolved set of “future skills” to perform well in a globally-distributed, digitally-connected workplace in which mental dexterity and technological acumen will be key. The long-term careers of many young working learners will be seeded by mastery of these new skills now.

As part of our efforts to inform and empower the workforce, ACT Foundation and Institute for the Future (IFTF) recently highlighted the Future Skills working learners will need to succeed in the emerging learning economy. The skills reflects changes in the way people work and learn. They are often overlooked in current assessment methods but are increasingly seen as essential for long-term life and work success. Future Skills directly connects to the National Network of Business and Industry Association’s Common Employability Skills (NNCES) and can be grouped in one of four categories: personal skills, people skills, applied knowledge, and workplace skills.

· personal skills: resilience
· people skills: cross-cultural competency, social intelligence and virtual collaboration
· applied knowledge: novel and adaptive thinking, cognitive load management and sense making
· workplace skills: new media literacy, design mindset, transdisciplinarity and computational thinking 

“The careers of the future haven’t taken shape yet, and the skills they will require are not being systematically developed,” said Parminder Jassal, Ph.D., executive director of ACT Foundation. “Everyone involved in education and workforce training must urgently refocus and rethink what—and how—we expect our working learners to work and learn in tandem. The future is coming whether we are prepared for it or not, and those who are not prepared will struggle to survive, while those who are will thrive. It’s better to be prepared.”

Personal Skills

Resilience is the key personal skill for the future, characterized by the ability to treat others with respect, demonstrate a willingness to work and seek out new challenges, exhibit responsibility and adaptability, and display professionalism. Resilient workers are prepared to meet NNCES expectations for personal skills in a manner that “demonstrates that the engaged employee is a striver and a role model.” The skill is critical in adapting to a “VUCA world,” a concept popularized by IFTF futurist Bob Johansen in which the defining elements of the working environment are volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. One of the only certainties about the future is that there will be a great deal of rapid change, and those who are resilient will be best equipped to cope and prosper. This includes, as the report notes, the need for workers to “acquire new skills, assume extra responsibilities, and accomplish more with limited resources.”

People Skills

The “team players” that successful workers in the future must be will need to work with others of both similar and diverse backgrounds effectively, by engaging in meaningful communication. Critical to that work will be cross-cultural competencies, social intelligence, and virtual collaboration.

It will be crucial for workers to adapt cross-culturally, employing a blend of skills and contextual awareness to engage with people from other backgrounds, countries, and mindsets. As diversity in team makeup is more universally embraced as fuel for innovation, the ability to collaborate within a global team will be critical. Developing a cross-cultural competency will often call for workers to independently assemble their own resources and coaches to help them learn how to appropriately maneuver within unfamiliar cultural contexts.

“Progress depends as much on our collective differences as it does on our individual IQ scores,” Dr. Scott E. Page, professor and director of the Center of the Study of the Complex Systems at the University of Michigan

Social intelligence deals with the new normal of digital relationships, where social media has fundamentally changed the ways people interact with each other. Successful workers in the future will need to leverage online networks, crowdsourcing, and distributed teams who connect mainly via phone and the internet. This will become increasingly important as routine tasks become ever more automated and making human connections instead becomes an elevated job functions.

The social intelligence skill works in concert with competencies in virtual collaboration, a rapidly expanding trend as the nature of work changes from location-based activity to more flexible, technology-enabled job functions that can be performed anywhere. In particular, workers will have to find ways to ensure that isolation doesn’t take the place of presence and develop interaction techniques that build collegiality and reinforce the corporate culture.

Applied Knowledge

Employees of the future must be proficient analysts who can make logical conclusions. They have to be able to digest and use information by achieving literacy in mathematics, written communication, scientific methods, information technology, and critical thinking.

For instance, future employees must have an ability to quickly make informed decisions through novel and adaptive thinking. This will give workers a competitive advantage in the forecasted unpredictability of the working environment. Especially as machines take over previously white-collar jobs, a premium will be placed on people who demonstrate intellectual value as opposed to those skilled only in more common manual or administrative tasks. Increasingly, creativity and insight will become central skillsets that will make workers stand out.

The information workers will have to process will come increasingly fast, and there will be a lot of it. The ability to process that information will require skills in cognitive load management. Without these skills, the tremendous amount of data workers will be exposed to every day can become overwhelming. Important information may be overlooked while other contextualizing information may be missed. At the same time, the massive amounts of information available could spark a revolution in productivity. The ability to turn the torrent of information presented into an asset, rather than a liability, will be critical.

Like the android Data in the Star Trek, The Next Generation series, machines will almost certainly be able to perform amazing computational feats, but will still not be able to compassionately apply human values and sentiments to challenges and opportunities. These “sense-making” skills will be important in the making of reasonable decisions tolerable by society. They will involve being able to place data in the context of what it will mean to actual human beings with feelings and souls.

“If we ask what thinking is, so that we can then ask how to foster it, we encounter an astonishing and terrifying answer: we don’t know.”Jaron Lanier, computing pioneer

Workplace Skills

The work of the future will require the average worker to solve problems and make decisions to a greater degree than ever before. This will require those workers to be highly organized planners, with a strong understanding of business fundamentals, customer needs, and the capabilities of both existing and emerging tools and technology.

Not only is data going to be presented to people in more and more massive quantities, the forms that data will take will also continue to evolve. Already, we are seeing the emergence of new media based on technological advances, like smart phone apps, while other forms of new media are simply a contemporary “mash-up” of traditional media, such as the increasing use of infographics or games as communications vehicles. Skills in new media literacy will be central to a future worker’s ability to separate fact from fiction or opinion as previous lines of demarcation in information delivery blur and as workers come under increasing pressure to themselves use more effective and complex communications tools, like video production and data visualization.

Workers in the future will also need to approach their projects with a design mindset, comprehensively looking at the way information is delivered, science is leveraged, and people connect. The average person will have new tools and technologies at their disposal that will allow them to physically and intellectually mold the world around them in ways that would have been impractical before. They will be expected to not simply accept things as they are, but to often independently create new systems, interfaces, environments and spaces to better serve humankind.

At the same time, workers will need to embrace transdisciplinary approaches to problem solving, not simply relying on one discipline to address challenges or seize opportunities. Instead, they will have to look for areas where multiple disciplines intersect in sometimes unexpected ways to optimize outcomes. Because of this, workers will not only need to have deep knowledge in specialized areas of expertise, but also a broad understanding of the content and capabilities present in other areas.

“Transdisciplinarity also implies people who can learn and adapt more quickly, who are better life-long learners.” Jim Sphorer, director of IBM’s Almaden Services Research


Just as machines are being built with more artificial intelligence in an effort to teach them to think like humans, it will also be important for humans to, in a way, think like machines. As machines become more integrated into daily life and harder to extricate from the way we live, workers must develop the ability to understand how they operate, and how that operation applies to everything we do. No longer simply the purview of scientists, theorists, and ethicists, computational thinking, which is an understanding of the connections across digital systems, will be necessary for everyone.

Every person and every institution will be affected by the proliferation of these skills in the workplace—from corporations who will incorporate them into their business operations to academic institutions who will have to find new ways to prepare students to gain and use them. It is clear that workers of all ages will have to engage in a process of lifelong learning – often self-directed – using the panoply of resources that will exist. Success in the coming working and learning landscape will require that workers have the foresight and flexibility to constantly update and refine these skills.