Preparing the Workforce for Tomorrow

Over the past ten years in my work for regions and localities on economic development and targeted industry strategies, I have had the opportunity to interview more than 1,000 company leaders.  One theme has consistently emerged:  regardless of the sector, geography, or size of the companies, the top issue is workforce.

At the International Economic Development Council’s (IEDC) 2012 Annual Conference in Houston this past October, I had the opportunity to present on this issue with my colleague Norma Owen of Avadon Group. Our session was entitled Preparing the Workforce for Tomorrow’s Opportunities.  Norma is a national leader in developing strategies and initiatives for the workforce of the future.  Our presentation was based on our continuing collaborative work lead by Rick Smyre, President of the Communities of the Future, on the transformation of our economic system toward what we have termed a “creative molecular economy”.  This transformation was presented in an article I coauthored with Rick entitled, Searching for a New Dynamic and the implications for the future workforce in an article coauthored by Rick and Norma entitled  A Future Forward Workforce.   

In our work we stress that we are at a point in economic history where there are three economies in churn: the very last stages of an Industrial Age Economy based on hierarchies, economies of scale, mechanization, and predictability; a transitional economic phase known as the Knowledge Economy started around 2000 and based on knowledge creation and diffusion; and an emerging Creative Molecular Economy (CME) in which biological principles are forming the framework for how the future economy will be organized and operate.  More specifically, the CME is characterized as: 

The integration of emerging technologies with creative individuals, small groups, and companies organized in interlocking networks, connecting, disconnecting, and evolving constantly in a process of continuous innovation.

The current economic environment, that in which the CME is emerging, is also characterized by change occurring exponentially faster than in the past and this rapid change will continue to characterize the future.  Technologies and jobs related to them that exist today did not exist ten years ago; more still will exist ten years from now.

What does this mean for the future workforce?  In the Industrial Economy, workforce was driven by automation, mechanization, and management of process.  In the Knowledge Economy, the workforce is driven by knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and creativity and innovation.  In the CME, workforce is increasingly being driven by abilities to network, collaborate, and adapt in an environment of rapid, constant change.  Therefore, it is essential that the workforce of tomorrow be adaptable, or as Norma and Rick explain:

The development of any 21st century workforce capable of adapting to constant change will need to “mash-up” individual commitment for learning new capacities for transformation with an emergent culture open to new ideas of any type and attractive to creative people and organizations.

Much of the above still represents early or what Rick terms “weak signals” for the future.  In our presentation on the future workforce at the IEDC conference, Norma and I also offered the following recent trends in workforce, which are more concrete for economic developers to get their hands around:

·         An inverted labor supply. Routine jobs are decreasing while unqualified labor supply curves are increasing and non-routine jobs are increasing while the qualified labor supply curve is falling.

·         The need and availability of real time data to help understand rapidly changing workforce supply and demand.  This includes data and job postings, openings, and resumes from sources including Monster, Wanted Analytics, and EMSI.

·         Education and training programs that (like the workers themselves) are flexible, mobile, and adaptable.

·         A more independent workforce including self employed, 1099 workers, and home-based workers that are in need of good cell phone coverage, high speed internet, and quality places to live, work, and network.

As the economy transforms, to succeed in economic development and creating wealth so to must our workforce system change.  In fact, the two are one in the same.  Additionally,

As we move from an age of mass production to an age of networked innovation, competitive advantage will increasingly be determined by innovative ideas and social collaboration, and so the task of creating our future economy rests on our ability to nurture talent. 

– Klaus Swab, Founder and Chairman of the World Economic Forum, China Daily September 12, 2012 “Vision Needed to Weather Economic Storm”.

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