Preparing for the Future of Work – Three HR Strategies for Employee Skill Development

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By Keith Keating

Forty percent of our workforce is worried about the future of their jobs as a result of automation and robotics, according to research by PWC. Forty percent! It’s no wonder there is worry with the way Hollywood and the media are depicting a bleak future where robots replace humans.

And of course the internet helps to fuel the fear by planting seeds that make us wonder “will robots take our children’s jobs?” Or assertions that “robots may steal as many as 800 million jobs in the next 13 years” without providing reputable data to back up the claim. My favorite proclamation, by far, is the warning that “you will lose your job to a robot – and sooner than you think.” These headlines work as intended; they are scary. It’s no wonder our workforce is worried.

When we think about the workforce of the future, one of the first challenges is that people don’t know what opportunities will be available to them. They don’t know what else they can be because they don’t know what roles will exist or what type of skills are required in the age of automation and robotics. As HR and learning and development leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that we identify the skills needed in the future and begin creating opportunities to bridge the gap. We can’t expect our employees to develop the skills completely on their own – this is where we need to architect and create opportunities for skill development experiences. The following are three strategies to consider using for skill development:

  1. Stretch Assignments

Stretch assignments are projects or tasks beyond current skill sets or knowledge, intending to create a developmental “stretch” opportunity to learn and grow outside of the comfort zone. It’s an opportunity that will challenge but not push far enough to burn out from stress. It’s not part of a merit system and we should not judge. In many ways, it’s an opportunity to fail fast and learn from the experience in a safe environment.

The following are three examples of stretch assignments:

  • Managing an intern or volunteer
  • Organizing and leading an event or meeting
  • Lead a new initiative not within the comfort zone


  1. Digital Skills Exchange Platform 

When skill development opportunities are created within the organization, they should be housed in a centralized location for our workforce to access. Another approach to architecting developmental opportunities could be to create an infrastructure that houses stretch assignments or skill development opportunities like a Digital Skills Exchange Platform. The platform does not need to be technologically complicated. It could be a SharePoint site, an internal social media site, or an intranet page. That platform consists of four components:

  • Database of all possible professions or occupations within the organization or broader within the industry
  • A course calendar showing when, where, and how the skills needed are delivered
  • An index of the employability associated with each occupation
  • The skills required to work in the profession

The platform not only provides visibility into where opportunities exist within the organization but can also serve as a mechanism to uncover where skills already exist. An example of this platform in practice is the Intel Development Opportunity Tool (DOT) – a platform where managers can post short-term development opportunities that any employee can access.

The overall value of this type of platform is it:

  • Creates two-way skill visibility between managers and employees
  • Offers best-fit development by illuminating opportunities in unexpected places that meet their specific development needs
  • Makes manager benefit more clear by illustrating the skills the team can expand on as part of the experience and also by identifying non-traditional candidates to consider that the manager may not have otherwise had access to


  1. External Developmental Opportunities

When we identify skill gaps within our organization, our normal response is to hire someone with those skills. What if, instead of hiring someone new, we gave our current talent the opportunity to develop the skills and bring them back to the organization?  We could partner with trade organizations to create internship programs for our workforce. We could create opportunities with partner organization and create “job swap” opportunities. For example, Proctor & Gamble and Google created an external development partnership by creating a digital marketing talent exchange for a month-long job swap to upskill employees on new skills within a new organization. While it may take a little longer to develop our current talent than it would to hire new talent, the overall cost benefit to the organization may be lower by upskilling our talent with their depth and breadth of experience within our organization.


While the term “workforce of the future” might insinuate the changes we need to make can start tomorrow, the reality is we need to take action today to help prepare our workforce. We don’t want to wait until our employees are made redundant, on the path to redundancy, or too frozen in fear about their future that they are no longer open to learning.

Whether through strategies like stretch assignments, digital skills exchange platform, or external partnerships, we want to be creating opportunities for our employees to practice second-skilling. Second-skilling is developing new skills while in the current job.

Our workforce should not be living in fear for the future of their job. There is work for people today and there will be work for people tomorrow, even in a future with automation. Let’s change the discussion from being fear-based to being action-oriented. Join me on Feb. 19 for a webinar where I discuss additional strategies HR and L&D leaders should consider to enable our future workforce for success.

For more information attend our webinar: “The Future of Work: Preparing Today’s Workforce for Tomorrow” presented by Keith Keating.

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