Hybrid skills are ascendant in the post-pandemic talent economy

We now face a tight labor market with fewer resources to pull from when it comes to human capital.

As published in Chief Learning Officer

In the United States right now, there are more than 10 million jobs for the fewer than 8.4 million workers who are unemployed, according to a September 2021 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Closing those talent gaps would appear to be simple, but the unusual circumstances and shifting norms of the pandemic seem to be prompting a broader awakening among Americans in their attitudes toward work and the workforce, with 4.3 million Americans (2.9 percent of the entire workforce) quitting their jobs in August alone.

For some reason, the “Great Resignation” has come almost as a surprise, as employers somehow expected workers to return to low-paying jobs with zeal. As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson put it bluntly, “Since the 1980s, Americans have quit less, and many have clung to crappy jobs for fear that the safety net wouldn’t support them while they looked for a new one. But Americans seem to be done with sticking it out.”

Part of what we witnessed with the onslaught of the pandemic was the lack of mechanisms we had in place to identify transferable skills to move people from those “crappy” jobs to better economic opportunities. At one point, the unemployment claims tallied to over 36 million, revealing how incredibly stuck Americans were, unable to transition into a more promising field.

To exacerbate matters, few employers offered clear pathways to advance within the company. According to one survey, 44 percent of employers offered zero upskilling opportunities to their employees. For many, there was simply no roadmap to get ahead — to figure out which skills to build in order to thrive and find fulfillment.

But we know from labor market information enabled by artificial intelligence that a retail worker might be 70 percent of the way there toward a role in human resources and just doesn’t know how to articulate those skills. A server might be 40 percent of the way toward an in-demand role as a network analyst and just needs those skill gaps illuminated. Workers need ways to surface the skills they bring to the table, as well as the skillsets they need to acquire that will be critical for advancement.

Even though we may not be able to predict the jobs of the future, we can begin to crack the labor market code in today’s economy and home in on the hybrid, or human and technical skills that will help working-age adults prepare for the jobs of today and tomorrow.

During a time when so much can be automated or delivered digitally, it is a combination of technical ability and uniquely human skills and behaviors that will set workers apart into the future. These are combinations of artificial intelligence and emotional intelligence, forecasting and ethics, or data science and communication. This isn’t traditionally how we think about the role of postsecondary and workforce training, but this pairing will be essential to supporting the long-term economic advancement of individuals whose career trajectories have been interrupted by the pandemic.

Survey after survey continues to reveal employers prize these hybrid skills because an employee’s technical — or technological — knowledge base is only as valuable as their ability to apply it in teams and complex systems. How can learning and development providers therefore center on this important combination of business skills, technological and technical skills, creativity, and collaboration skills? Where is the next generation of degrees that cultivate this skills mix?

These skills, particularly human skills, take time to build. We don’t build empathy from a one-hour or one-week training. These sorts of skills take deep practice and refinement. Employers, therefore, must begin to view themselves as not just talent consumers, but talent creators and advisors.

The workplace must become the classroom of the future in which talent leaders teach and measure digital and human skills alongside the manual and technical to meet hiring demands and the needs of an increasingly uncertain labor market. Workers will also need time in the workday to build, practice and reflect on these skills for the future.

We now face a tight labor market with fewer resources to pull from when it comes to human capital. Over time, the implications may be even starker as we consider the impacts of the learning loss that has occurred over the last two years due to the pandemic. According to a 2020 McKinsey analysis, when our current K-12 cohorts make it into the workforce of 2040, we may find ourselves with a less skilled and less productive workforce.

In order to rebound effectively and support our country’s global competitiveness, it’s crucial that we focus on building — not buying — talent and preparing our people for their next role — both for current jobs and roles that don’t exist yet. Hybrid skills are key to accomplishing just that.

Dr. Michelle Weise is the vice chancellor of strategy and innovation at National University System and the author of “Long-Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs that Don’t Even Exist Yet.” To comment, email [email protected].

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