Posted: 17 Jan. 2020 5 min. read

How to unleash the human potential of your workforce for the future

Posted by Colleen Bordeaux on January 17, 2020. 

The future of work is already here, and by now you’ve likely heard about the fourth industrial revolution—where up to an estimated 25 percent of US jobs are at “high risk” of automation since 70 percent or more of their tasks could be done by machines.1 Leaders across industries are reimagining their workforce models to differentiate how they can use technology, expanded work settings, and alternative talent to better serve market needs and attract top talent.

The evolution of technology means that the value proposition of humans in the workforce is changing. Determining and cultivating the skills that individuals need to thrive in the future of work is a high-stakes issue for virtually every single member of the workforce today.

While there is certainly still research to be done, the question of which skills are crucial for the future of work is not entirely a mystery. In addition to job-specific technical skills, there is a set of “employability skills”—such as communication and critical thinking—required to succeed in all jobs.2

The catch? There is a growing deficit of these “employability skills,” many of which, ironically, is age-old—such as communication, adaptability, and problem-solving.A 2019 study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 83 percent of respondents have had trouble recruiting suitable candidates in the past 12 months.4 Of those organizations, nearly one-third said that candidates do not have the right workplace “soft” skills for the positions. Research indicates that outdated models of education, which over-index on cognitive learning and do not develop the social and emotional skills required for the future, are at least partly to blame.5

Deloitte has started to research this complex topic by collaborating with a number of academic institutions and industry leaders. The shared goal is to reimagine the outdated education-work-life model that is being dismantled by the changing nature of human work in a world with longer life spans and increasing skills half-life. It’s not a new question, but one that is becoming more critical and nuanced as the pace of change to human work accelerates.

According to the World Economic Forum, humans urgently need to develop social and emotional skills—and not just in early education.Cultivating these skills beyond our primary years of schooling is key to closing the current workforce skills gap and vital for both individuals and organizations to survive the fourth industrial revolution. Humans need to build the skills that enable us to add long-term value where machines fall short, and simply adapting to technological changes will not be enough.

Some market leaders are assessing this gap within their own organizations and tackling the issue head-on by preparing their workforce for the future of work. One example is Google, which conducted a research study7 on their most effective managers and produced a list of 10 common traits that drive their success, many of which align to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s taxonomy of social and emotional skills.8 Armed with these insights, Google has revisited its hiring strategy and is screening more for nontechnical skills, such as critical thinking, empathy, and emotional intelligence.

Most organizations, however, lack a focused approach to building essential human skills in-house. One reason for this may be that these types of skills are commonly thought to be innate—but research suggests just the opposite. According to research conducted by Harvard University, social-emotional and noncognitive skills—often considered to be part of the “soft” skills repertoire—are malleable into adulthood and can be developed with the right resources, environment, and incentives.9 For instance, psychologist Angela Duckworth identified “grit”—a combination of perseverance and passion—as the most important predictor of career and life success. Most importantly, her research indicates that “grit” can be cultivated to increase achievement regardless of innate talent or intelligence.10

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study recently tested this theory and found that a 12-month workforce training program focused on improving communication, problem-solving and decision-making, time and stress management, financial literacy, legal literacy, and social entitlements, and execution excellence significantly improved productivity. The program delivered a 250-percent return on investment (ROI) within eight months post-program completion, with the jump in productivity attributed to much of the gain.11

This body of research is growing in the wake of disruption, and the implications are compelling: While the jury is still out on the human skills that will endure regardless of advancements in technology, safe bets can be made on investing in social and emotional learning in adults. Doing so is critical to closing the “employability skills” gap and developing the human skills that individuals and organizations need to innovate, grow, and thrive in the future of work.


Colleen Bordeaux is a senior manager in the Human Capital practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP and a leader of the organization’s Future of Work issue.


  • Caroline Levy is a consultant in the Workforce Transformation market offering within Human Capital at Deloitte Consulting LLP.
  • Katie Rial is a consultant in the Organization Transformation market offering within Human Capital at Deloitte Consulting LLP.
  • Melissa Rodriguez is a consultant in the Workforce Transformation market offering within Human Capital at Deloitte Consulting LLP.


1 Brookings Institution via CNBC

2 Chronicle of Higher Education

3 The US Department of Education defines “employability skills” as “general skills that are necessary for success in the labor market at all employment levels and in all sectors.” Years ago, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman noted that US competitiveness in the global economy of the future depends on a workforce that has acquired both the technical knowledge needed for specific occupations, as well as a set of “employability skills” required to succeed in all jobs.

4 Society for Human Resource Management

5 A 2015 study by David J. Deming of the National Bureau of Economic Research found that success and productivity of human workers depended on both cognitive and social and emotional skills, noting that outdated models of education were over-indexing on cognitive learning and not developing the social and emotional skills required for the future.

6 Google

7 Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the nation’s leading organization advancing the development of academic, social, and emotional competence (led by a board of industry and academic organizations, including Yale, NYU, the University of Virginia, and the University of Chicago), has been working for two decades to make evidence-based social and emotional learning an integral part of education. CASEL defines social and emotional learning as, “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they need to understand and manage emotions, set and accomplish positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

8 Harvard University

9 “Grit” by Angela Duckworth

10 Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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