Thoughts & Observations

Essential Skills for the Future of Work

Originally published on Medium

Twenty or thirty years ago, you couldn’t start your own business anywhere in the world with just a couple clicks of a mouse. To work, you had to show up at an office because that was where your typewriter or giant desktop computer was, where your important documents were kept in file cabinets, and where your business phone was tethered to the wall. You were still likely to stay at job for 20 or 30 years and get a pension and a gold watch when you retired.

The way that work looks, feels, and functions is in the midst of a dramatic shift. Every time we have gone through a major shift in work in the past, we have had to learn new skills to support it. We had to learn the work of agriculture. We had to learn how to work on an assembly line. We had to learn to use typewriters and fax machines.

So the question now becomes, what do we need to learn that will help us thrive in this new world of work today and ten, 20, 30 years from now? From my experience, I see three of the main categories of skills as: problem solving, technology, and self-management.

I witness the need for problem solving skills in my current role working with technology startups at NY Tech Meetup, but it is also something I came across much earlier in my career.

Seven or eight years go, you wouldn’t have found me working with tech companies. You would have found me in an engineering lab surrounded by a group of 30 giggling 11- and 12-year-old girls.

At the time, I was doing fundraising and building programs for the Girl Scouts in Southern California, and we were about to head out into the summer heat on a hunting expedition. Notebooks and pencils in hand, the girls weren’t going to be hunting deer, or wild boar, or bears. They would be hunting for bugs. And not just any kind of bugs. Bugs of engineering. Bugs of design.

You see, we had asked the girls to start creating a bug list—a list of design flaws they found in the world around them that bugged them, whether it was the handle on a door being too high or their sneakers rubbing their feet the wrong way. This list would serve as an inspiration for an invention of their own creation that they would build a prototype for later in their summer program.

As they were building their lists, one of the girls said to her mentor, a female engineering student, “I’ve noticed my mom doesn’t have any place to store her purse while she’s driving our minivan. Does that count as a design flaw?”

Her mentor confirmed that yes, indeed, it was a design flaw and that in designing and building the car, that was a feature that had been left out…mostly like by the male engineer designing it.

With that, the girl’s eyes lit up: “So that means that if someone designed the car…I could design the car, and I could design it differently?”

She had never thought that way before. She had never made the connection that the world was designed and built with the idea that there were human beings designing and building it.

This got me thinking about a few key things skills in the future of work: first, the majority of objects we interact with on a daily basis are designed by human beings mostly for use by other human beings, but a huge portion of the products we use and encounter are still significantly flawed and do not solve some of our biggest challenges. All of us should be exposed more often to design and engineering early in life, and we should continue to develop these core skills as a basis for problem solving. We also need to learn how to assess community needs and understand the true needs of someone outside of our own bystander experience.

Another, absolutely essential part to ensure that products and solutions serve our whole population is that the perspectives of those who are designing, engineering, and building the products need to be as diverse as the people who will be using them.

Now, because more and more frequently the tools to solve problems are technology based, we move on to the second area of skills for the future of work: technology skills. The first thing that usually comes to mind in this category is that we have a shortage of developers and that we need more people who know how to code.

While we definitely do need more people with those specific skills, we also need something more. Learning to code is an important core skill, but certainly not the only skill. It is only a partial solution. We also need more computer scientists, more people who can think critically and computationally. We need designers, user interface and interaction experts, project managers, and a generally technology literate workforce as well.

All of the technology products that we need technology skills to build are also driving that third category of skills we need in the future: self-management. Self-management covers everything from self-awareness to how we manage our financial stability on an individual level when we no longer work with a single employer for 20 or 30 years.

With freelancers predicted to make up 40 percent to 50 percent of the workforce by 2020, and all of us as individuals being challenged by technology on a daily basis to maintain attention and focus, we are now taking on more and more personal responsibility for the way that our work impacts our well-being.

While yes, in some cases our employer controls the hours that we work, we now make a multitude of individual choices about how many times a minute we check our email. Whether we sleep with our phones next to pillows. Whether we even take the vacation that has been allocated to us.

When we work remotely, when we don’t simply clock in at 9 and clock out at 5, when a significant percentage of our work is knowledge and creativity based, it means that we as individuals, and companies themselves, have to develop a deeper understanding of how we work best and what allows us to flourish as individuals and as part of a group.

It also means that if we can’t count on our employer to take care of us, to provide some sense constant security, then we have to do that for ourselves, through something that I call individual economic resilience.

Creating this resilience for yourself involves the work of compiling a toolkit of compensatory skills that allow us to move in and out of various types of employment, from freelance to full-time work, while maintaining some semblance of economic stability.

So what does this all add up to?

In the future, we will need a diverse group of technologically literate people, skilled at needs assessment and design thinking, who are effective, economically resilient self-managers.

And because human beings designed all of our current systems of business and work, it also means that the future of work is truly up to us.