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What HR Should Know About the Future of Jobs

This week I noticed an eye-catching stat making the rounds again. You’ve likely seen it as well:

“65% of today’s elementary school students will do jobs that do not yet exist”

Although it sounds believable, the claim is actually quite suspect. You can read a thoughtful tale of its history and context in this excellent essay from Benjamin Doxtdator: A Field Guide to ‘jobs that don’t exist yet’’.

The underlying message this stat conveys is that education is failing to prepare our next generation for the economy of tomorrow. And hey, don’t we already have a digital skills gap?

Interestingly, as Doxtdator points out, the more reliable stats paint a different picture:

“… we actually have good statistical projections about the future of jobs, and it’s bleak. A look into the future of paid work shows persistent gaps and cracks rather than a ‘flat’ world. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ projections for numeric job growth from 2014-2024 indicate that four out of the top five growing jobs pay salaries that are less than $21,400 per annum. With the exception of Registered Nurses (#2), who on average earn $66,640 and require a Bachelor Degree, the other top five growing jobs require no formal credentials.

And here in Canada, a recent report from the Council of Canadian Academies outlining the conclusions from an 18 month study confirmed that there was “no evidence of a current imbalance between the demand for and supply of STEM skills” and that “the source of Canada’s productivity problem is not a shortage of advanced STEM skills”.

Indeed, as Livia Gershon wrote in her Aeon Piece ‘The Future is Emotional‘ last month:

“…the truth is, only a tiny percentage of people in the post-industrial world will ever end up working in software engineering, biotechnology or advanced manufacturing. Just as the behemoth machines of the industrial revolution made physical strength less necessary for humans, the information revolution frees us to complement, rather than compete with, the technical competence of computers. Many of the most important jobs of the future will require soft skills, not advanced algebra.”

The Skills We Forget About

As I wrote last week, the ‘hyperbole curve‘ of popular discourse about ‘robots taking our jobs’ generally (and AI specifically) seems to have crested, and yet the notion that everyone should learn to code, and warnings about the digital skills gap still feels true to many of us. Why is that?

Doxtdator and Gershon make similar points about the conflicting interests at play.

Doxtdator quotes an interview of Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in which he suggests that when CEOs and the economic elite point the finger at education as a solution to  deal with globalization, technology, and inequality, it’s because it requires very little in the way of policy changes: “It’s not intrusive. It doesn’t require that we have higher taxes. It doesn’t require that CEOs have to deal with unions again.”

Krugman has been quoted elsewhere as calling the persistent idea of a math/science skill gap a “Zombie idea” that “should be killed by evidence, but refuses to die.”

“Krugman pins the blame on the fact that influential people and the media have kept repeating the skills gap narrative for years now, to the point where it has just become accepted wisdom. He thinks part of the reason for this is to divert attention away from widening income equality and so that workers can be blamed for their own struggles.”

Gershon notes that less technical, care-taking jobs are unlikely to provide opportunities for organizations and shareholders to reap the gains in productivity and profitability that automation and tech advancement have created in other sectors. Hence, perhaps, their relative disinterest.

“This isn’t something our economic system, which judges the quality of jobs by their contribution to GDP, is set up to do. In fact, some economists worry that we haven’t done enough to improve the ‘productivity’ of service jobs such as caring for the elderly the way that we have in sectors such as car manufacturing. Emotional work will probably never be a good way to make money more efficiently. The real question is whether our society is willing to direct more resources toward it regardless.”

There are plenty of organizations that rightly place enormous value on skilled, technical talent, and I do not intend to suggest that is misguided. Rather,  what is clear is that a critical type of labour that we cannot automate or dispense with is often overlooked and undervalued in our economy and organizations. This will need to change as these skills become even more important, not just due to automation, AI, and digitization, but because of shifting demographics in the the developed world which will make care-taking a growing field of work.

Emotional Work is Work

Before you assume that this doesn’t apply to your organization, remember that the emotional labour inherent in care-taking jobs like nurses and home health aides is at the far end of the spectrum, but that the associated skills (expressing empathy, suppressing one’s own emotions, maintaining a patient and helpful demeanour in the face of difficult customers and colleagues) exists to lesser degrees in a range of corporate roles too: help desk positions, customer service, administrative staff, receptionists, and even human resources. From Gershon:

“It can be hard to wrap our minds around the notion that emotional work really is work. With the very toughest, very worst-paid jobs, like working with the dying and incontinent, that might be because those of us who don’t have to do the work would rather not think about how crucial and difficult it really is. In other settings, often we simply don’t have the professional language to talk about the emotional work we’re doing. Smiling and nodding at a client’s long, rambling story might be the key to signing that big contract, but resumes don’t include a bullet point for ‘tolerates inconsiderate bores’.”

We shouldn’t assume that we can simply train more people to do this kind of work. It’s more complex than that, and we’ll need to rethink the way we design, evaluate, compensate, and hire into these jobs. Gershon again:

“As valuable as formal training in emotional skills might be, it’s not at the heart of what makes people successful in emotional labour. In 2013, the British sandwich chain Pret A Manger came under fire for using mystery shoppers to ensure that its staff appeared constantly cheery. Service workers, of course, are expected to be friendly toward customers. But Pret A Manger’s secret monitoring of its own staff, to ensure unflagging cheeriness while also depriving them of the wages and working conditions that might encourage actual cheerfulness, came across as cynical and disingenuous. Besides, having to essentially fake an emotional connection can feel exploitative in ways that even the most painful physical labour is not.

Having some autonomy, being treated decently and not being overstressed all the time might be the biggest keys to being an effective emotional worker.”

The Role of Human Resources

So what can we do to tune in to this type of labour and ensure that we are supporting those who do it?

  • When hiring, let’s look beyond the hype that suggests everyone needs a degree or industry-specific technical skills or experience. Many care-taking and other ‘middle-skill’ jobs, (including some in Tech) don’t. For more on this, check out this recent article as well as Raise Your Flag in Canada, and TechHire in the US, whose mission is partly to chip away at “the cultural hegemony of the bachelor’s degree (which is awesome, by the way).
  • Recognize that emotional labour is real labour – ask yourself, and engage your organization’s leaders, to look at how this work is being evaluated, weighed, and valued in your job evaluation and compensation structures and systems.
  • Incorporate knowledge about emotional labour and work into job design and resourcing plans and practices. Recognize the distinct kind of demands this work makes on people and be mindful that it is historically discounted in favour of work viewed as more “cognitively demanding”.
  • Accept that training workers to be cheerful and act empathetic is not enough, especially if their working conditions are not supportive and humane. Requiring this behavior at every moment is likely to backfire by producing emotional dissonance that leads to cynicism, disengagement, and burnout.
  • Avoid approaches to performance which require constant cheeriness regardless of the context, and ensure employees are trained to remove themselves or seek support to address situations in which they feel dehumanized or threatened.
  • Be wary of any performance assessment involving random or constant monitoring of employees’ emotional state devoid of situational context (e.g. mystery shopping or general rating of customer experience). Humans aren’t machines, and expecting them to act like empathetic robots is unrealistic.
  • Review overtime and paid leave policies. Jobs with heavy emotional labour requirements put workers at risk of burn-out. Make sure these employees have adequate breaks and time off, and ensure there aren’t misaligned incentives that require or encourage overwork. No, resilience training and wellness information won’t cut it!

I feel certain that many of you have great ideas and experiences to add to this discussion. I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.

Read this Week:

How to Answer” What’s Your Biggest Weakness?” – Adam Grant

Ugh. I have spent years removing this tiresome and pointless question from interview guides for hiring managers, only to occasionally have them go off script and smugly squeeze it in while meeting with a candidate. Inevitably the prospective employee responds with some humble-brag answer they read on the internet like “I’m a real perfectionist” or “I’ve always been told I’m too hard working”, and I hold in 48 eye rolls until the interview kabuki concludes.

I appreciate that Grant tries to encourage candidates to rethink the usual approach to answering this lazy, trite excuse for an interview question by sharing research that indicates interviewers react more favorably to authentic responses.

“When collaborators reviewed the answers, they were 30% more interested in hiring the candidates who acknowledged a legitimate weakness.

By admitting your inadequacies, you show that you’re self-aware enough to know your areas for improvement—and secure enough to be open about them.”

However, I’d prefer to see a campaign to ban this question forever (it requires that people are self-aware enough to know, assumes that traits are fixed, and ignores the fact that ‘weaknesses’ are entirely contextual).

Our Biases Undermine Our Colleagues’ Attempts to Be Authentic – HBR, Tina R. Opie and R. Edward Freeman

Terrific piece examining some of the unintended consequences of the current infatuation with authenticity in organizations. I’ve written about this before, and it is representative of the ‘groundhog day’ problem in HR and management thinking generally: when we seize on a word or idea without thoughtfully parsing its meaning and considering how it might apply in our organizational context, from multiple perspectives, we doom ourselves to an endless cycle of fadishness and superficiality. Wow, I am really grumpy this week….

“…many organizations may be unwittingly setting themselves up for failure when they jump on the authenticity bandwagon. In fact, by encouraging employee authenticity, these organizations may be creating an untenable and unethical tension between employee authenticity and employee fit.

Take the perspective of employees who may have to exert greater effort to conform to organizational standards. Straightening one’s hair, squeezing into uncomfortable business shoes, wearing uncomfortable suits, and dyeing gray hair are just a few examples of steps that employees may make to conform to standards of professionalism. But at what cost? When employees conform to standards that they find inauthentic, they may experience decreased productivity, less commitment, and less satisfaction.”

Image credit: Tatia Van Rensburg via

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Really enjoyed this one 🤔

    July 10, 2017

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