For employers and employees alike, keeping one step ahead of future challenges is a constant battle. From sociological and economic factors to the rise of technology and the ways in which it influences our lives, change is a fact of life.
But attempting to anticipate future changes need not be a case of gazing unconvincingly into a crystal ball.
Research carried out by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) aims to offer a more substantiated, less cloaked and mysterious, view of the world of work 15 years from now. The Future of Work: Jobs and Skills in 2030, published earlier this year, builds on comprehensive research and analysis of current and upcoming trends, highlighting the dangers employers may need to consider.
The study identified a number of underlying trends which are likely to impact on the workplace in the years ahead, including an increasingly ageing workforce, more women in higher-level jobs and new models of working, with greater collaboration between in-house teams and external service providers.
But the research also offers glimpses into the ways in which work may affect our lives outside the office. Uncertainty around income levels was highlighted as an obvious concern for employees. And a greater desire for a better work-life balance may lead to more flexibility surrounding working, with remote working through mobile devices likely to become the norm.
Toby Peyton-Jones, director of HR for Siemens UK and north-west Europe, and a commissioner for UKCES, says: “Though these findings may only offer a glimpse of the world of work in 15 years, forewarned is forearmed when making plans for the future. This research allows us all to make plans for our future and ensure we are as well prepared as possible for whatever may lie ahead.
“Although we may feel much of our working life is controlled by our employers, this research points towards increasing amounts of power being placed in the hands of employees. Increasing use of flexible contracts and project-based working means organisational skills and project-management experience will be valued, while the exponential growth of technology could mean the less tech savvy may be left behind in the workplace.”
The longer-term impact of these trends may be uncertain, but the report depicts a number of possible scenarios, offering both challenges and opportunities for employers. One such scenario anticipates a “status quo” period, where the economy grows modestly over the next two decades, while workplaces become more flexible.
Under this version, highly skilled workers are much sought after, resulting in higher levels of pay, an increase in autonomy and an improved work-life balance. However, the picture is far from perfect, as those at the opposite end of the spectrum experience lower job security and stagnant pay.
An hourglass-shaped economy also emerges, with a heavy weighting of highly skilled workers at the top. But limited opportunities for mid-level workers, technicians for example, creates a “squeezed middle” forcing many people into low-skilled roles where their talents are under-utilised. Meanwhile the ageing workforce means older people stay in the workplace longer, leading younger workers to become trapped in low-level entry positions, requiring careful management from employers.
Ensuring businesses have or develop the right skills is essential, while managers will need to cope with the challenges from having four generations in work at the same time
As if that weren’t enough to consider, the report also highlights a range of possible “disruptions” which could occur. These include reverse migration, where the UK experiences a net outflow of migrants; changing values from employees and society around flexible working and corporate social responsibility, forcing employers to alter their business models; tension over new employment models, such as zero-hours contracts; and the emergence of disruptive technology, such as smart algorithms and artificial intelligence, which could threaten the existence of some highly skilled jobs altogether.
These developments could create some different and more challenging scenarios.
THE GREAT DIVIDE
Robust growth in high-tech sectors, such as life and material sciences, accentuates a two-tier society, with large divides between high and low-skilled workers, London and the South East, and the rest of the country. Employers focus their efforts around attraction and retention on those most in demand, with little attempt to engage lesser-skilled employees.
Significant developments in technology threaten traditional professions, such as accountancy, insurance and law, resulting in a rise in unemployment and a threat to economic stability. Employers struggle to find the skills they need from talented people coming out of other industries, leading to a rise in investment in skills and training. For these employees, work tends to be project-based and people become used to long periods of unemployment. Work and pay remain steady, but unspectacular for lower-skilled employees, largely in the services sector.
The UK endures a long period of minimal economic growth, with the financial services sector struggling to compete globally. IT becomes increasingly important to both businesses and the economy, creating at least one thriving sector. Employment falls, incomes stagnate and employers come to rely on virtual workforces to conduct roles that would previously have been done in-house. Project-based assignments become the norm for many employees, with many operating on zero-hours contracts.
It is, of course, impossible to predict the future with any great certainty, but there are undoubtedly a number of possible issues of which employers must be aware. Ensuring businesses have or develop the right skills in areas such as technology is essential, while managers will need to be equipped to cope with the challenges that will come from having four generations in work at the same time. Thought must also be given to how and where employees will need and want to work, as well as how the traditional employment model can evolve to cope with this.
Those organisations that are able to identify such trends and put in place measures to help prepare for them will not only be best placed to avoid unexpected skills gaps or tension in the workplace, but also to put in place the business models and practices which will enable them to thrive going forward.
“Some may see many of these findings disconcerting,” says Mr Peyton-Jones. “But the future, as ever, remains uncertain. The crucial step now is for employers to take responsibility for their own future and that of their workforce, and make certain they are prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.
“By heeding these warnings, taking on adaptive business strategies, and investing in the skills and talents of employees, we can avert skills bottlenecks, ensuring businesses build the skills needed to simulate productivity to remain competitive.
“Building strong ties with colleges and universities is just one important way in which employers can ensure that what is being taught remains up to date and fit for the future. Profound employer engagement of this nature is critical to establishing a demand-led skills engine to drive growth.
“It is vital that we do not read these findings as a case of businesses barricading themselves against what lies ahead. In adversity lies opportunity, and by maximising the time laid out in front of us we can all ensure we have the plans in place and the skills we need to not just endure, but thrive.”
For further information, including detailed projections of UK employment, labour supply and skills by sector, download our report by searching for jobs and skills in 2030 www.gov.uk/ukces