Workers Don't Know Their Own Potential

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Even the most confident worker tends to undervalue themselves. Ask the average employee to list their skills for their role and most will come up with 11 or so. But let artificial intelligence assess those same workers and the number jumps to 34.

That’s the finding of a pilot study from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in collaboration with Unilever, Walmart, Accenture and SkyHive (a start-up that uses AI to map skills and match workers to opportunities) that looks to examine the skills gap as automation pushes employees to transition into new roles.

“The entire concept of work is evolving quickly,” reads the report. “And the upheaval brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic further crystalized an urgent and complex global employment challenge: how to prepare people for the future of work in ways that serve individuals, businesses and communities.”

The WEF estimates as many as 85 million jobs could be displaced by automation by 2025, but another 97 million positions will emerge. The question is: How do companies prepare people for those new career paths?

“No company today is equipped to operate upskilling efforts at full scale,” said Amy Goldfinger, SVP, Global Talent at Walmart. “That’s the problem and the opportunity.”

That looming shift – and the job changes it will entail – is being referred to as the "Fourth Industrial Revolution." And a key component of it will be a culture of lifelong learning, which will help the workforce remain relevant, productive and employable. Unilever, for example, is taking a leadership role in that reskilling role, committing to spend $2.8 billion per year to upskill its entire global workforce by 2025.

“The two biggest threats that the world currently faces are climate change and social inequality,” said Alan Jope, Unilever CEO. “The past year has undoubtedly widened the social divide, and decisive and collective action is needed to build a society that helps to improve livelihoods, embraces diversity, nurtures talent, and offers opportunities for everyone. … Without a healthy society, there cannot be a healthy business.”

The good news is that while workers might not recognize their potential, it often doesn’t take them long to be ready for a new job once it’s pointed out to them. The study found that, in some cases, a person would only need to pick up a few additional skills to switch disciplines entirely. More encouragingly, the average worker could be reskilled for an entirely different role in just six months.

"Look at the paths not as a ladder or a steppingstone, but in a much more dynamic fashion,” says Goldfinger. “These are the skills someone has, these are what they don’t have, and this is the percentage of skills they need to get to this other place. That creates potential for more tailored interventions.”

Being able to do a job and wanting to do a job are much different things, of course. That’s why, the study found, human resource departments are going to be so critical in this retraining. Employers need to keep the human element in mind and help guide workers to areas they’re passionate about. HR is also important since skills are not tied to specific jobs, but the individuals themselves. Businesses that focus early on upskilling can gain a competitive advantage, the study finds. And it calls for collaborations and alliances both within and between organizations in a cross-industry fashion.

Finally, while the use of AI to help people discover new skills helps with preparing them for the future, it also has the potential for larger societal advances. AI, after all, has none of the biases that humans do, meaning it could help erase the gap faced by so many underrepresented groups in offices.

“AI opens possibilities that people can’t see due to inherent biases,” says the study. “There is widespread evidence that women and people of color under-represent their skills. It’s likely that responsible AI will help people shed more biases, create more equitable processes and more job pathways.”

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Chris Morris

Chris Morris is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience, more than half of which were spent with some of the Internet’s biggest sites, including CNNMoney.com, where he was Director of Content Development, and Yahoo! Finance, where he was managing editor. Today, he writes for dozens of national outlets including Digital Trends, Fortune, and CNBC.com.

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