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The Death of the Single Skill Set


Today’s post comes to us courtesy of board member Jeanne C. Meister. Jeanne is a Partner at Future Workplace, and co-author of the award winning HR book, The Future Workplace Experience: 10 Rules For Mastering Disruption In Recruiting and Engaging Employees

A longer version of this article originally appeared on

multitaskingThe future of work is here today, and the nature of both manufacturing and knowledge jobs will never be the same. According to a McKinsey analysis of 2,000 different work activities across 800 occupations, automation will change virtually every job across all occupations. Specifically, McKinsey found that in about 60% of occupations, 30% of tasks could be handed over to robots and bots. “More occupations will change,” the report concludes, “than will be automated away.”

Other sources have predicted that automation of professional knowledge economy jobs in the United States will be more than 10 times as large as the number of manufacturing jobs automated to date.

While much of the current debate on automation focuses on mass unemployment and rendering entire occupations susceptible to displacement, what we really need to focus on is what new skills are needed in key job roles and then develop a plan of action to up-skill individual employees and teams. Leaders must prepare for the future of work rather than just train for today’s jobs.

So how does one prepare for this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world of work? I believe by understanding a simple fact: across many jobs there is a “death of the single skill set,” and what has made you employable today will not be enough to ensure you are employable tomorrow.

This death of the single skill set has been documented by David Deming, associate professor of education and economics at Harvard University. Dr. Deming argues that many jobs requiring only mathematical skills have been automated, but roles which combine mathematical and interpersonal skills (such as economists, health technicians and management analysts) will be in demand.

This notion of developing cross functional skills is not new, in fact the notion of “T” shaped skills was first described in 1991. “T” shaped individuals combine both a depth and breadth of skills possessing deep functional expertise with well-honed social skills to collaborate across disciplines. Now, with automation impacting up to 60% of occupations, it is becoming more important than ever for individuals to demonstrate these “T” shaped skills combining uniquely “human” skills (executive presence, empathy and communications) with technical ones.

So let’s not leave the future to the futurists. Leaders today must be prepared to deal with the VUCA of the global marketplace, recognize the power of digital technology to disrupt their industries, and begin the work of helping their employees develop the multiple skills they will need to remain employable and contribute to the success of the organization.

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  1. It’s a very interesting question as to what “uniquely human” skills there are. If we automate out all the employees, executive presence will not be in demand. I also suspect that just as people sometimes find the company of animals more pleasant than the company of humans, we may find empathetic AI preferable to the typical employee.

    The crazy thing is that an empathetic AI might cost only a few cents per hour, so even if it falls far short of a skilled human, the cost difference will kill the human’s chance for a job.

    One thing for sure, if automation continues on the track it appears to be on then we’re in for a turbulent ride.

    Even a benevolent SkyNet will reek havoc.

    July 18, 2017
  2. Great article – thought provoking! At the micro level, I suspect early adopters have already begun to explore with and perhaps leverage AI in their areas of expertise. That approach will surely place them ahead of the pack, and at the least, initiate the process of breaking down the VUCA of things into smaller and manageable components, while offering the opportunity to develop or enhance human skills (hopefully). We live in very exciting times.

    July 18, 2017

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