Futurists predict

Robots, data and liberal arts degrees: Futurists predict the future of talent

By Tina Irgang

(Editor’s note: Part 2 of our futurist series explores how businesses will attract and interact with customers in the future.)

The competition for talent has never been fiercer, with more and more companies reporting they have open positions for which they cannot find qualified candidates. So what can your company do to make sure you’re finding and keeping the right people five, 10 or 20 years from now? And most importantly, will we all be replaced by robots? We asked the region’s leading futurists to weigh in.

“Humans are in shorter and shorter supply,” says David Pearce Snyder, life styles editor of The Futurist magazine and a strategic forecaster based in Bethesda, MD, who has advised clients including American Express, J.P. Morgan and Con Edison of NY. “Birth rates have fallen, slowly at first and then rapidly after the financial crash. … The entry-level labor pool is going to shrink and shrink even as the exit pool gets bigger and bigger” with the baby boomers retiring, he says.

Birth rates generally decline during periods of social anxiety and economic downturns. With children conceived shortly after 9/11 getting ready to graduate high school in a few years, expect to have much fewer choices for your potential employees, agrees Chris Miller, founder of Innovation Focus in Lancaster, PA. A major labor shortage is likely to stretch well into the 2020s, he predicts.

In the past, such shortages were usually balanced out by an influx of immigrants, but given recent political backlash against immigration, employers may not be able to rely on that, Miller adds.

The age of the liberal arts graduate

The futurists agree that this coming shortage will drive businesses to automate as many tasks as possible: “The cost of labor will go up, and so will the pressure on businesses to get rid of human employees,” says Snyder.

While it’s intuitive to think that low-skilled workers will be the first to be replaced by automation, that’s not necessarily true, says John Mahaffie, principal of Leading Futurists LLC in Washington, DC.

“Any skill that’s manual or inexpensive, it can actually be cheaper to use people,” he says. “The middle skill is what we just don’t need the same way anymore — transaction work, middle management, managing the flow of goods or paper or data. All of that is where automation hits hardest.”

Highly skilled talent with specialized programming and other technical expertise will continue to be in demand and will be hard to replace through automation. But forward-looking companies will find their future leaders in a different demographic, predicts Mahaffie: “Skills around design, around understanding the marketplace, people skills, communication skills, creative skills — all those are hidden assets in a lot of decently educated people out there who are actually capable of working at the leading edge. People have to figure out how to spot those skills and nurture them.”

Mahaffie’s advice? Groom liberal arts graduates for the next generation of leadership.

“Find your people who have the aptitude and may be more generally and less technically educated,” he says. These are the people who are the most likely to provide value as future leaders of your business. “There’s always a need for the narrowly specialized,” Mahaffie notes, “but if you picked the wrong specialty, it may be obsolete in three years.”

The future of hiring

“A few years ago, a company called Evolve.com decided to position itself as the big-data expert on recruiting and talent development. They worked with a number of very large corporate enterprises, including Xerox and AT&T,” says Snyder. “They used their personnel records and did huge surveys over long periods of time on hundreds of thousands of careers to find out what are good predictors of future good performance on the job.”

What the surveys found was that a lot of commonly used performance predictors were not good predictors at all. “This includes things like, how well did the individual perform on standard intelligence tests? Has the individual been unemployed for a long stretch of time, or are they job hoppers? Have they been convicted of a felony? Those four issues are commonly used as screening tools to dump candidates,” says Snyder. “In screening out people who don’t meet those criteria, employers in an increasingly tight labor market are essentially cutting themselves off from good sources of HR.”

The lesson? Don’t dismiss otherwise qualified job candidates because conventional wisdom tells you they might not perform well, for example because they have a gap in their resume, says Snyder. “Firms that don’t use big data analysis or don’t use business intelligence are not going to be able to compete. Businesses that continue to do things the way they have, … are likely in the long run to fail, because they’re not taking advantage of what big data tells us are the right things to do.”

The hard work of retention

Be warned: In the future, retaining employees is going to take hard work.

“More companies are going to start making it their mission to treat their employees just as well as their customers,” says Brad Grossman, partner, founder and CEO of New York City-based ZEITGUIDE, which examines future trends in business and other sectors. “Because if you don’t, they won’t treat your customers well. We’re in an age where the customer and the employee are basically equivalent in terms of how much time, energy and resources a company should spend on them.”

Much of that time should be spent on providing an environment that embraces health and wellness, says Jonathan Peck, president and senior futurist at the Institute for Alternative Futures in Alexandria, VA.

“If you expand your idea of what health is so you’re not so focused on the medical side, but you’re addressing the social, the psychological, the spiritual side of your workers, there may be greater returns to leverage,” says Peck. That includes retention but also productivity.

For example, consider becoming more engaged in surrounding neighborhoods to resolve underlying social and environmental issues there, says Peck. “If you create a better community around your workforce, … you actually get their family thriving, their kids are doing better at school, they’ll less likely be drawn away at work towards issues in the family or neighborhood.”

Grossman agrees: “You have to create a healthy workplace, and a healthy workplace isn’t just about making it a place that ensures productivity, but it also has to ensure that the employees stay. … When you are in a physical space, it has to be about playing and living and feeling healthy — the workplace has to be just as healthy as a healthy home.”

The industry of the future? It’s construction (yes, construction)

The term “industry of the future” tends to conjure up images of flying cars and brain implants. But the futurists agree that the industry with the biggest growth and investment potential is actually one that’s been around since humans decided to leave caves for houses: construction.

Why? In short, global warming.

“We’re going to have increasing opportunities around protecting seashore communities, moving houses, building interior houses and infrastructure,” says Chris Miller, founder of Innovation Focus. “Miami alone is going to spend tens of millions of dollars building an internal infrastructure. That doesn’t happen without investment, and that investment creates a business opportunity.”

Another reason is the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, combined with a lack of public funding. That combination will push the construction industry to innovate on an unprecedented scale, predicts Anirban Basu, chairman and CEO of Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group, Inc.

“The nation faces enormous infrastructure deficits, and people are wondering how state, local and federal governments will find the money necessary to rebuild our crumbling bridges and repave our roads,” he says.

As a result of these pressures, the construction industry will reduce cost and improve efficiency, for example through the use of emerging pre-fabrication and modular building techniques, says Basu. With fewer people able to afford homes, you can also bet on a boom in smaller, affordable units, he adds.

The growth of small business

Another industry with major growth potential: small manufacturing, and other businesses betting on a consumer population that’s increasingly embracing local, specialized products.

“Now, we have little artisanal bakeries all over the place,” says John Mahaffie, principal of Leading Futurists LLC. “The old ways come back in, and the big driver for it is likely to be what consumers are interested in, which is craft stuff, local, authentic. … We may in fact go back to having small manufacturing everywhere.”

Specialty markets are the wave of the next few years, agrees strategic forecaster David Pearce Snyder. “The ability to identify markets for specialty products and then to serve that market, and not the mass market, is another one of the features of the information age that will foster small-scale entrepreneurship,” he says.

Over time, however, expect those small businesses to become tomorrow’s big corporations, he cautions. That’s what happened during the industrial revolution. “Inventors and their small businesses, many of the ones who were successful became the corporate giants of today. … Over time, the economic marketplace will adjust, and eventually we’ll have the same mix of big and little businesses that we’ve always had.”