It’s a high-stakes question with wide-ranging implications for the global economy, Michigan businesses, and local workers – and we’re overdue to tackle it head-on. Ten years ago, with double-digit unemployment and a surplus of job seekers, companies weren’t worried about training. Five years ago, predictions of a robot apocalypse made it seem that reskilling employees might be pointless.
Today, as the implications of automation and data exchange (Industry 4.0) becomes clearer and unemployment flirts with record lows, companies are scrambling to boost productivity and find people with the right skills. The human workforce is here to stay, and workforce training is now front and center as an imperative for business and economic growth.
What does this mean for you?
First, if you don’t already have a plan for reskilling or upskilling your workforce, it’s time to get off the sidelines. Technology is going to keep disrupting and redefining businesses, regardless of size or industry — and addressing those changes requires active participation. Understanding how Industry 4.0 impacts your current products and services will help you define the impact on your workforce, the work you expect them to do, and the gaps in their current capabilities.
Automation doesn’t necessarily mean job elimination. As a recent World Economic Forum (WEF) report cites, “The individuals who will succeed in the economy of the future will be those who can complement the work done by mechanical or algorithmic technologies, and ‘work with the machines.’”
Your existing workforce may very well prove to be your greatest asset. What skills do they have that can transfer over? What new opportunities can you give them with just a bit of training? According to the latest WEF research, with adequate reskilling, 95 percent of the most immediately at-risk workers could find good-quality work in growing job families.
And while it’s tempting to think Gen Z will sweep into the labor force and solve the skills gap, employers can no longer rely solely on new workers entering the labor market with ready-made skills. That’s why the number of employers filling skill gaps by re-training and upskilling their existing workforce has more than doubled since 2015, from just over one in five to more than half. This approach can also serve as a powerful retention tool: In a 2018 survey conducted by LinkedIn, a whopping 94 percent of respondents said they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their career development.
Community colleges can be among your best allies in building a more competitive workforce. They understand that the speed of change in today’s tech-charged business climate is rewriting the three R’s of education: it now needs to be rapid, responsive, and recurring. It’s no longer feasible to expect a 22-year-old to graduate from university with skills that will last a lifetime, or a 52-year-old to return for a four-year degree in the latest hot field. Community colleges are smaller, more agile, and more directly in tune with the needs of local businesses – and they’re using those advantages to disrupt post-secondary education in a big way.
Here in metro Detroit, Oakland Community College (OCC) is urging educators and business leaders to work together to prepare the Michigan workforce for Industry 4.0. As Douglas Smith, OCC’s executive director for workforce development and lifelong learning, explains: “If Michigan is to win the ‘Talent Race,’ (we need) to achieve real pervasive structural change in education. Colleges must focus on experiential learning, competency-based education and enhanced engagement with business, industry, and labor. Companies have to create new partnerships with educational institutions, including supplying employees that can teach a few nights a week, maybe even as part of their job responsibilities.”
Elsewhere in middle America, programs like Kenzie Academy are helping mid-career workers take a fast track to acquire high-demand skills through short-cycle learning and paid apprenticeships. Along with the power of community colleges, programs like these are proving to be a winning formula for businesses and workers alike.
Employees have been told for decades that they need to embrace lifelong learning to stay relevant. The same is now true of employers. To successfully grow our businesses and our economy, we must all take an active role in building a workforce that can rise to today’s challenges and thrive in the future of work.
Jack Van Tiem is the Detroit territory vice president for Troy-based Kelly Services, a global leader in providing workforce solutions. He oversees the staffing and business solutions operations throughout metro Detroit, with a focus on staffing for automotive, manufacturing, retail, financial services, and technology.