A woman wearing a blue blazer smiling while looking slightly off camera.
Marie O’Donoghue. Image: PwC

The new skills landscape: How employers can prepare for the future

24 Aug 2022

PwC’s Marie O’Donoghue shares her advice on how employers can future-proof their workforce and address potential skills gaps.

Click here to view the full Future of Work series.

The adoption of remote working has led to a lot of discussion around where we work. But the events of the past two years have also changed the skills we need for work.

Marie O’Donoghue is the change management consulting lead in PwC Ireland, with more than 20 years’ experience helping leaders plan for how their business needs to adapt to meet tactical and strategic goals.

She said PwC’s recent Future of Work and Skills survey suggested that identifying the skills workers need in the future is one of the biggest struggles for leaders.

“This signals a need for targeted investment to understand current workforce capabilities and identify the size and nature of skills gaps and mismatches. Strategic plans based on dynamic data analysis should be in place to meet the skills gaps which have the most impact on delivering business value,” she said.

“These gaps can be mitigated with a range of measures, including general and targeted upskilling, targeted hiring and onboarding, enhanced on-the-job coaching, and the designing of career paths and succession plans that enable mobility and subsequently build new skills and experiences, enabling retention.”

What will the new skills landscape look like?

While tech and automation are becoming an important part of many workforces, soft, human skills are also becoming more important than ever.

O’Donoghue said, in particular, the ability to lead and manage people in a way that engenders trust is more crucial than ever.

“It necessitates letting go of outdated management practices focused on control and clock-watching. Trust-based working will be a cornerstone of the future of work. Without it, organisations will struggle to make hybrid or remote working work,” she said.

“However, we know from our data, which questioned almost 4,000 business and HR leaders, that only 30pc strongly agreed that their organisation builds high levels of trust between workers and their direct supervisors. This requires a greater focus on collaboration, engagement, feedback and storytelling skills, not only for leadership but for employees at all levels of the organisation.”

Apart from leadership skills, O’Donoghue said companies need employees who have agility, resilience, creativity and the ability to be comfortable with failure. And when it comes to upskilling in these areas, technology can help.

“Virtual reality and immersive 2D training are really effective ways to upskill in soft skills in a safe space. It is not only faster but has a range of benefits such as improved learner focus and retention of information in addition to increased emotional engagement,” she said.

“We’ve found it is particularly impactful for diversity and inclusion training where users are reporting greater confidence, higher emotional intelligence and connection. Learners are reporting a wake-up call moment during the training.”

Outside of soft skills, she added that more sophisticated technical digital skills are also becoming more important – particularly those with a greater focus on predictive data analytics, data science, scenario modelling and data-driven storytelling.

The skills gap challenges

Recent discussions around the workforce have dealt with extreme skills gaps, the ‘great resignation’ and even ‘quiet quitting’ – giving employers a lot to be concerned about when it comes to talent retention.

However, O’Donoghue said these trends are an opportunity for employers to pay closer attention to the skilled workers they already have and ensure they keep them engaged.

“Organisations need to think critically about the future and involve their people in that process. Workers who feel empowered by their current circumstances, with specialised or scarce skills, are ready to test the market,” she said.

“Nearly six in 10 respondents to PwC’s Global Workforce Hopes and Fears survey plan to ask for a raise in the coming year, and one in three said they are extremely or very likely to switch employers. This increases the pressure on organisations to rapidly access and deploy talent.”

‘Roles will change, many that exist now will disappear and new jobs will appear in their place’

She added that HR leaders can no longer rely solely on traditional methods of attracting and retaining employees and must instead explore new contracting models. And as the world shifts to more hybrid working models, O’Donoghue said that the way productivity is measured needs to change from inputs to outputs.

“Leaders need to identify what’s really important, what will deliver real value for their organisation, customers and employees. At the same time, they need to consider the impact of workload on their teams to avoid burnout and negatively impacting work-life balance.”

While addressing their current skills needs, employers also need to future-proof their workforce by preparing for the unknown. According to O’Donoghue, the best way to do that is to focus on protecting people, not jobs.

“Roles will change, many that exist now will disappear and new jobs will appear in their place. Therefore, organisations should be deliberate in how they create a culture of learning and innovation, and have a learning and innovation strategy aligned to their overall strategy,” she said.

Key to this is helping people consider the bundle of skills they have, how those skills could transfer to other roles, and help them to upskill for the future. This means that organisations need to be equipped to deliver the upskilling or partner with “the right people to ensure the greatest chances of success”.

O’Donoghue added that the metaverse will impact roles and leaders need to prepare for this, especially in areas such as risk and compliance, where the focus should be on what changes to existing policies, procedures and activities will be required.

“Crucially, organisations should be thinking about the level of change management that is required to support their people in adapting to the disruption and the opportunities on the horizon.”

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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