T-shaped workers are more adaptable

Everywhere you look there is a shortage of key skills in an increasingly complex and specialised world, particularly technology and digital skills.  There is a constant refrain from employers that the graduates they hire aren’t job-ready while at the same time mid-career professionals complain of job insecurity as their skills become out-dated.  This applies to all types of workers from the trades to professionals.  Although people are being called upon to specialise early, they are also being asked to adapt more often through their careers.

In the past, we wanted our blue and white-collar workers to spend years practising their chosen vocation to become proficient.  They would dedicate maybe the first third of their careers honing their skills as specialists or even artisans in everything from processing tax returns to shoeing horses.  However, most of these repetitive and specialised activities are increasingly being automated.

The structure of our industrial society, with working, middle and upper classes corresponding to blue-collar, white-collar and management, is gone.  In our rush to break down the barriers between the three, we’ve underestimated the impact of technology and arguably created three new digital society classes corresponding to the evolution of work.  There are now those that work for the machines (such as delivery drivers who receive their schedule from apps), those who work with the machines (such as doctors and nurses who receive clinical advice from AI colleagues) and those that work on the machines (such as engineers and programmers).

Just as many had ambitions to move between classes, there are increasing opportunities to move up the value chain of relationship with the machines.  With more skills needed to manage exceptions rather than processes, many of those that are scheduled by machines move to take roles smoothing the rough edges of the automated processes and work with the machines.  At the same time, those that are supported in their jobs by machines are more often being asked to codify their expertise through low-code and no-code solutions putting them at the top of the working pyramid.

The major obstacle to any career agility is access to learning.  The more that skills lend themselves to self-education the easier it is for workers to empower their own job aspirations.  Given the virtual nature of the digital world, it is a cost-effective skillset to learn at home through trial and error.  This is different to many traditional careers where either the consequence of mistake is serious (such as in medicine), requires substantial infrastructure (such as in building trades) or needs significant human interaction (such as in law).  Learning to program is something you can do from the comfort of your own home with little overhead.

In fact, this is my experience.  I first saw a home computer in the late 1970s when I was eleven.  By the time I was thirteen, I’d saved enough from my paper round for a TRS-80 and taught myself to program.  While my degree had negligible computer science, I embarked on a career in IT based on access to tools where I could teach myself, always staying one chapter ahead of the immediate requirements of my job!

To truly take advantage of the opportunities across a whole career, it is increasingly important that we all focus on a suite of skills that look like a “T” maximising self-education opportunities.  On the crossbar is an interest to explore adjacent and interesting ideas.  But this is offset by the stem of the “T” which is a willingness to make yourself an expert in something, ideally very narrow early in a career and broader as time goes on.

There has never been a better time for us all to take responsibility for our own education as it has been disrupted through the pandemic.  In 2013 I predicted that Universities, in particular, would be disrupted but not displaced.  Much of what I anticipated has come to pass, accelerated by COVID-19.  In the post I predicted that the role of the campus and learning would change.  In that world, I saw specialist superstar digital lecturers taking over, that hasn’t quite happened (yet) but the interim step of digital platform enabled learning well and truly has.

It is not only tertiary education that is rushing to catch-up with the new world.  In secondary schools around the world, parents are worried their children will be left behind and so focus on what they see as achievement rather than learning.  The problem is that this can lead to accelerating hard subjects to free-up room for higher scoring subjects, maximising results rather than establishing a learning foundation for the future.

Preparing for the future is always unsettling but taking a T-shaped approach to your skills sets you up for a career regardless of how individual jobs or work more generally changes in the future.

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