The Way We Work
October 23, 2012 by Amy Sept

“The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.”
— Alvin Toffler

The slow recovery from the global recession is highlighting—among other issuesthe gap between jobs and skills.

There are 40 million people unemployed in advanced economies around the world, yet millions of jobs are available. In Europe, there are 1.2 million unfilled positions;  the latest numbers from the Department of Labor show that there are three times as many vacancies in the U.S.

While there is significant need for job creation, many jobs are sitting empty. One in four European employers say they have had difficulty finding the right candidates; in Japan, that number climbs to 80 percent. Bridging the gap between these jobs and the people who need them is a complex balance of skills, experience, culture, geography, language and policy.

In trying to address the gap—now, and increasingly in years to come—some companies are taking matters into their own hands. To succeed over the next decade, independent professionals will need to do the same.

Where Jobs Are Growing

The McKinsey Global Institute describes three types of jobs: Interactions, Transactions and Production. Only one of these categories—Interactions—has seen any growth since 2000.

Interaction jobs “involve complex interactions and often require deep knowledge, independent judgment, and experience,” McKinsey defines. These jobs are a mix of “non-tradable” jobs that are relatively localized (e.g. welding and health care), and “tradable” jobs that can increasingly be done anytime and anywhere—which are the crux of Work 3.0.

While the necessary skill level may vary, the growing majority of Interaction jobs require some form of post-secondary education. Studies indicate that 80 percent of jobs created in America over the next decade will require skills in science, technology, engineering or mathematics—otherwise known as STEM skills. Unfortunately, interest in these subjects is generally low; a study by Accenture found that just 1 in 8 degrees awarded in the U.S. are for STEM degrees.

Employers Are Encouraging Development and Education

To reduce the shortfall of STEM-trained workers, a growing number of companies are investing in initiatives to help generate interest in these subjects and build the skills needed in the longer-term. Most of these efforts focus on students, but some also target the workforce.

Amazon, for example, launched the Amazon Career Choice program over the summer: The company will pre-pay tuition and associated fees “for courses that lead to technical and vocational certifications or associate’s degrees in eligible in-demand fields,” like computer-aided design or machine tool technologies.

By educating staff in these targeted fields—identified as high-growth by sources like the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics—Amazon is equipping its employees with in-demand skills that won’t just help them compete individually; the company can potentially use these skilled employees to meet their own future needs.

And for Germany, education is one of many factors credited for the country’s rapid recovery from the recession. Kurzarbeit, a reduced work initiative designed to protect jobs during hard economic times, also has a professional development aspect: if an employer invested in staff training, the government committed to subsidize the cost.

The result, explained Wolf-Bertram von Bismarck, is a workforce that’s better prepared to compete in the post-recession economy. “The program enabled German companies not only to retain their qualified employees and talents…but also enabled the companies to better position their employees after the crisis ended,” he wrote for Human Resource Executive Online.

For Independent Professionals, Education Leaves the Classroom

“There is no good job today that does not require more and better education to get it,
hold it, or advance in it.”

— Thomas Friedmann

The jobs of tomorrow are changing, so developing your own skills is critical to keeping up with demand. Fortunately—similar to the growth of online work—higher education has become increasingly digital and accessible.

Douglas Shackelford, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and dean of its new online business degree program, said in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton that the confines of a brick-and-mortar school increasingly make little sense.

Describing one student who works with five people—whom he’s never met in person—across four continents, Shackelford said: “The idea that he would go back into a classroom to do his MBA seemed like something his granddad would have done. It’s a Facebook world now.”

This is not a new concept, but it is a newly popular one. The OpenCourseWare movement, whereby universities share course materials for free via the Internet, first launched in 1999. It didn’t gain much momentum until it was spearheaded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2002. Now, more than a decade later, the online education movement has expanded and evolved into initiatives like edX and Coursera (university programs), the Khan Academy (K-12 subjects) and Lynda (general skills).

While it still falls short of common practice, access to online education is on the rise—although you need to find the right program for your needs. Some of the university-level online courses, called “massive open online courses” (MOOCs), are offered for free and no tests are done to access your knowledge; others are part of expensive full-degree programs.

How we learn, how we build our careers and what those careers might bethese are all evolving at a rapid pace. Taking an active role in developing skills for the future will likely mean the difference between a thriving career and a stagnant one. But thanks to innovations in online education opportunities, keeping up with skills development may be easier than ever.

What steps have you taken to stay ahead of the curve? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Amy Sept

Managing Editor

As the managing editor of the Upwork blog, Amy Sept works with regular and guest writers to share information that helps freelancers and businesses navigate the future of work. A writer and social media pro, she owns Nimbyist Communications and often works remotely with non-profits, tech companies, and small business owners.