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10 Skills The Workforce of the Future Will Need

June 3, 2014
at 3:18 pm PST

nicholasThis blog was written by Nicholas Enna, Director of Enterprise Applications at Teach For All, and originally appeared on Huffington Post ImpactX. Cisco supports Teach For All with donations of telecommunications infrastructure. 

“We are all interested in the future, for that is where we will spend the rest of our lives.” -Plan 9 From Outer Space

I find myself averse to writing predictions of the future as most predictions fail. Take a few minutes to peruse some older covers of magazines on a blog like Paleofuture and you may find yourself chuckling at the image of planes landing on top of skyscrapers and airships shuttling thousands of people lazily from one city to the next one.

Even the posts as late as 1980 are a little cringeworthy now, and many articles written today will seem equally ridiculous to later generations.

A great example is OMNI Magazine’s prediction of 47 careers that would be common in the future, like “space geographer” or “microwave marketer.” Most predictions of the future simply take the present and add 20 to it or reflect the personal prejudices and naive expectations of the predictor.

Yet, as I scroll through these relics of futures that never came, I started to wonder if it really is such a bad idea to take some time and ponder how work and careers would change in the coming decades. Maybe such predictions seem silly, but back in the ’70s, who would have changed a lucrative job manufacturing cars for a career in robotics? They might have, had they seen the articulated robotic arms being sold to General Motors and its competitors. In 1990, when the fledging web was emerging, how many people thought they needed to jump into online security? Today, it is one of the most in-demand jobs.

I soon realized that if I want to remain gainfully employed, it might be worth imagining what being gainfully employed will mean in several decades. With that thought in mind, I sat down at my keyboard and whipped up a list of 10 skills that I think the workforce of the future will need to know.

1_worldmaking1. They will need to know how to create new worlds.

Virtual reality has been discussed for so long it has already started feeling retro. But the truth is, we have been building towards it for the last three decades, and it is moving from entertainment to everyday life, including classrooms, likeKhan Academy, where millions of children connect and learn every day. These virtual worlds will expand beyond the realm of entertainment to become extensions of the workplace environment and people will have to know how to move through them, manipulate them and create them.

2_holistic2. They will need to think holistically.

Resources will be limited and more will have to be done with less. We have been led to believe that resource constraints create vicious competition, but successful competitors in nature are often collaborators that can see a greater value in a whole, and how they fit into it. Already, companies like Patagonia and Zappos are asking their employees to focus on more than just the bottom line and are reaping benefits from it.

3. They will often be changing themselves mentally and physically to respond to challenges.

Adaptation is a must. Eventually, we as a species will become as malleable as our devices. The future workforce must expand their minds to envision what can be done when technology and nature are no longer separate and whole new categories of diversity become commonplace. It may seem like science fiction, but the boundaries of what humans can do will be pushed in the future and those working in it will need to know how to operate within a whole new set of boundaries.

4_mattertoinfo4. They will turn information into matter and matter into base information on the fly.

Many people will become makers, creating prototypes on demand for all sorts of products. They will also be able to do the same in the opposite direction, taking apart things and breaking them down into information that can be shared amongst team members. Today, anyone can build things that only factories could produce, using their personal computer and a 3D printer that fits on their desk.

5_no-central5. They have to be able to work without direct leadership in tight temporary organizations that will act independently.

The ability to build fast relationships is a must as well as the ability to manage oneself with little external input.

6. Those seeking long-term secure employment will find it in employee-owned and -operated companies.

Most service industries will have shed much of their workforce to automation, so many low skilled employees will find work in collectivized companies, which will fulfill niches that large multinational corporations will miss or ignore. Right now, the 7th largest firm in the U.S. is the employee owned company, Publix. In such situations, everyone, from the dishwasher to the chief executive, will need a good business sense.

7. Many future skills will relate to mind-machine interfaces.

If humans are to compete with machines in any meaningful way, they will have to become part machine themselves. In this way, humans are not in competition with machines, but working in concert with them. Already, contact lenses that can take pictures exist, so the machines are only getting closer and closer.

8_seaofdata8. They will all be data analysts.

We swim in seas of data, and like most oceans, they will be dark waters that will require some navigation to sail through to find the dry land of useful information. Even now, a simple internet search can turn up millions of links, but it takes a trained mind to parse out which ones are relevant.

9_tell-a-story9. The ability to tell a good story will be valued over spreadsheets, graphs, and data points.

Data is fine, but people will still need to be convinced that a particular course of action is worth time and resources, and this is where the skills and abilities of a telling the data driven proof in a narrative way will become an important technique.

10. Our future workforce must be ready to become “shallow experts” very quickly on many different types of software, platforms, and services.

There will always be specialists, and they will continue to fulfill important niches, but considering the speed of change, no one platform can be expected to dominate a field forever. The biggest foundation skill the new workforce will need is the ability to develop a working knowledge of new systems in very little time, either to fulfill the expectations of their job, or to work with the specialists who will.

There you have it. Does this list describe the future of work? Are there some items I suggested that you see happening now? For sure, the future will be connected, collaborative and digital, and along the way, many ideas will be relegated to status that airships and moon bases occupy in our media today, yet we should never stop predicting. In predicting the future we learn something about our present and ourselves, and learning will always be the most important skill anyone, in any workforce, in any time period, can have in their toolbox.

To explore more about this subject, check out many more articles on ImpactX exploring the changes technology will have on our lives, now and into the future.

This piece is part of Cisco’s series on the workforce of the future. As the worldwide leader in networking, Cisco is committed to helping people develop the technology and career skills they will need to succeed in tomorrow’s workforce. Learn more at csr.cisco.com.

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