Successful workers are no longer defined by their ability to hone one specific set of skills and apply it throughout a linear, one-company career. Instead, the most successful workers are those with “liquid skills” – the ability to upskill, reskill and continuously hone existing capabilities. These workers accept that their current expertise could be outdated in the near future, and they will therefore continuously seek to acquire new, relevant skills.
Certainly in a start-up culture we see the modern worker offering an organization a diverse range of skills, which are used to fill specific skills gaps. Within a single tenure at one particular organization, a worker can expect to bounce from role to role, meeting different skillset needs at different times, effectively having multiple careers without leaving the company. As the ability to reskill becomes increasingly valuable, we will see larger organizations adopt a similar attitude toward roles and responsibilities.
This shift toward roles guided by an ever changing skillset results in a level of flexibility for large corporations that are highly suited to the convergence of humans and machines. While tasks are automated away, workers retrain and fill other skills gaps, thus creating a hyper-agile workforce. Although we do expect to see some job loss as a result of automation and AI, the malleable, fluid nature of being skills-driven and able to reskill reduces the risk of workers becoming outdated.
The necessity of liquid skills for workers creates a call to action for companies and government, and particularly for higher education. Academic institutions need to prepare students for the workforce by incorporating skills training into the curriculum. Technical training and digital competency remains of paramount importance for students entering the workforce, but soft skills must also be taught – the ability to collaborate, communicate and effectively problem-solve will define the human elements of work. (For more on this topic, see “‘Going Soft on Skills Development.”)
With this breadth of competency, graduates can enter the workplace with a quantifiable set of skills ready to be put to use, instead of relying purely on experience, not yet gained, in a traditional career structure (entry level, graduate scheme). Alongside skills training, students should leave university equipped with the tools to upskill and reskill – they should learn to learn. Embracing an attitude of continuous self-improvement and knowledge acquisition enables the individual to thrive when careers become increasingly flexible.
Ultimately, at this point in time, much of the onus rests with organizations that need to meet this demand for continuously changing skills. If liquid skills are the new marker for a successful worker, the question of progression and feedback must also be addressed. Is a linear promotion track no longer suitable? Should appraisals focus on skills acquisition and adaptability of workers? Ultimately, workers must be motivated by their organizations to nurture liquid skills – therefore, the all-too-familiar yet obsolete employee management structures of many organizations will not cut it.
Organizations must prioritize future workforce planning, especially with regards to learning and development, in order to remain competitive in a modern landscape. A worker with malleable skills beats one sitting at the top of the career ladder.