Rather than an orderly, sequential progression from job to job, 21st-century careers can be viewed as a series of developmental experiences, each offering the opportunity to acquire new skills, perspectives, and judgment.
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In the 21st century, careers are no longer narrowly defined by jobs and skills but through experiences and learning agility. The ongoing transformation of work, the need for people and organizations to constantly upgrade capabilities, and shifts in employee preferences demand new approaches to learning, job design, performance management, and career development.
As rapidly advancing technologies and team-centered business models drive organizations to redesign themselves, leaders are also struggling to create new career models and build new skills across the workforce. In this year’s Global Human Capital Trends survey, “building the 21st-century career” emerged as the third-most-important trend; 47 percent of respondents described it as very important. Yet only nine percent of respondents are very ready to address this trend, demonstrating the challenge’s urgency.
What is a 21st-century career? We define it as a series of developmental experiences, each offering a person the opportunity to acquire new skills, perspectives, and judgment. Careers in this century may follow an upward arc, with progression and promotion at various times—but they will look nothing like the simple stair-step path of generations ago.
This year, 61 percent of our survey respondents told us they are actively redesigning jobs around artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and new business models, and 42 percent believe automation will have a major impact on job roles over the next two years. This disruptive change has huge implications for workforce needs, including skill development. However, many learning and development (L&D) departments are falling behind. A separate 2017 employer survey found that more than half of the respondents did not have learning programs to build the skills of the future.1
As technology advances, skills are becoming obsolete faster than ever. But—contrary to conventional wisdom—the greatest value now lies beyond purely technical skills. In fact, the most valuable roles are those that enable machines to pair with skilled, cross-disciplinary thinkers to innovate, create, and deliver services.2
Many of today’s fastest-growing jobs are in fields such as health care, sales, and professional services that are essentially human, but can be aided and augmented by machines. Indeed, the most in-demand technical roles have shifted from STEM to STEAM, where the “A” stands for arts.3 A recent Burning Glass study found that even data and analytics jobs now require skills such as writing, research, problem-solving, and teamwork.4 Scott Hartley writes in his book, The Fuzzy and the Techie, that the best technology and products come from innovations that blend the arts and sciences together: “We need both context and code, data literacy and data science.”5
Organizations are beginning to understand this new skills landscape. In this year’s survey, companies list complex problem-solving, cognitive abilities, and social skills as the most needed capabilities for the future. Businesses are clamoring for workers with this blend of skills, not pure technical competency.
This demand means that companies should not just reform their L&D programs, but may also need to fundamentally reshape their career models. That starts with scrapping the traditional “up or out” career ladder in favor of careers where people can continuously reskill, gain new experiences, and reinvent themselves at work. Careers today can last as long as 70 years,6 so individuals must be able to pivot throughout this journey to align with evolving jobs, professions, and industries.
Although organizations are recognizing this shift and responding, many challenges remain. Nearly three-quarters of our survey respondents (72 percent) indicate that career paths at their company are not based on the organizational hierarchy, simple moves up the organization chart. Still, only 20 percent said that their organizations develop people through experiential learning, and just 18 percent feel they give employees the ability to actively develop themselves and chart new pathways for their careers. More than half of the respondents (54 percent) said that they had no programs in place to build the skills of the future, and internal mobility is still often driven by tenure, title, and internal politics.
Though nearly three-quarters of respondents indicate that career paths in their organization are not based on a traditional organizational hierarchy, almost half still base their development program on the skills needed for these defined paths.
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This fundamental mismatch between career pathways and the development employees need to be successful leaves people feeling frustrated and powerless. Not surprisingly, nearly 60 percent of respondents this year rated their organizations as only somewhat effective or not effective in empowering people to manage their own careers.
Solutions will not come from the education industry, leaving the responsibility squarely with organizations. While educational institutions are developing more multidisciplinary degrees, research shows that degrees are not all that matters. High-performing organizations evaluate and hire candidates for attributes such as work ethic, values, and potential as well as for their experience and skills.7
One significant enabler of a 21st-century career is an organizational focus on building a culture of learning. According to research, companies that practice a growth mind-set, create “designed growth” and stretch assignments, and openly discuss mistakes to promote learning are three times more profitable and have up to four times better retention than those that do not.8
The corporate learning market is shifting to help companies find and deliver these solutions. A vast array of new self-directed learning tools have entered the market,9 enabling employees to find content, take courses, and share information like never before.
Building on these tools, companies such as Visa, Ingersoll Rand, IBM, Walmart, and others are creating learning networks and knowledge-sharing systems, using new platforms to curate content sourced both internally and from massive open online courses (MOOCs).10 Salesforce, SAP, and other large vendors are now opening up their content to workers for free, helping people find the training they need with the click of a mouse.11
Others are pushing further, applying advanced technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). For example, BMO uses an AR application that allows employees to interact with a digital layer over their physical workplace, providing on-demand access to learning materials and using gamification to encourage exploration. 12
Companies like Shell are transforming their careers and learning capabilities into interactive digital experiences that use both AR and VR to accelerate knowledge and augment the job experience. Shell is also responding to the increased pace of change by emphasizing experiences early in employees’ careers. “We cannot foresee what campus hires will be doing five years from now, but we do know we will always need the best talent for our business, so we are focused on accelerating development to innovate, collaborate, and make a business impact,” says Jorrit van der Togt, executive vice president, HR strategy and learning, Shell.13
Successful organizations are providing tailored solutions that empower individuals to reinvent themselves within the company. This is key both to enabling workers to navigate 21st-century careers and to allowing employers to access the skills of the future.
Some employers are targeting both goals at once through means such as using data-driven career development tools to identify the best “next move” for employees.14 For instance, IBM has created AI-based self-assessment tools to help employees find training, job openings, and career paths most relevant to their personal needs.15
When effective, programs like these will allow employees to find, pursue, and excel in the kinds of experiences they need to grow. This helps organizations to retain employees and equip them to meet current and future work demands, powering a new career pathway that benefits both the individual and the organization.
For organizations and business leaders, there is a new imperative: Examine, understand, develop, and implement a variety of solutions to support 21st-century careers. Only a focus on experiences, new career models, data-driven tools, and L&D offerings will enable companies to develop, retain, and reinvent the right talent at the right time.