Industry 4.0 is happening whether people are ready for it or not, and as more jobs are lost to automation, it will be up to companies, and finally, the individuals themselves, to ensure that they remain relevant in this brave new world.
Dutch multinational human resource (HR) consulting firm Randstad Holding NV CEO Jacques van den Broek says the purpose of HR departments are shifting and many of the traditional tasks, such as recruitment, are being outsourced to firms such as Randstad so they can turn their attention to the more profound challenge of keeping everybody in the company fit for the future.
“There’s a lot of investment on training and upskilling for future development because technology changes the job content of many people. And HR can or should be the guiding light and support system for the company to get there.”
Van den Broek, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently, thinks one of HR’s main functions is to take a mid to long-term view of the development of employees’ skills. “A job is quite a coincidental combination of tasks. And if some of these tasks disappear or get automated, the job doesn’t necessarily disappear as well.”
Randstad works with its clients on the mid to long-term scenarios but van den Broek says the company also advocates that employees take care of their own continued employability rather than leave it up to their employers.
It has launched a big data-based product called Employability Scan, which is aimed at those who are 45 and above and want to remain active and relevant. “You fill in all sorts of data on yourself such as how you are trained, what you are doing in your job every day, your expectations of the future, where you want to work and what you want to earn.
“And then we offset these answers with a peer group and it gives you a vision or a diagnosis of your employability. Clients buy this from us. They fill in the questionnaire and get an interview with one of our career counsellors,” he says.
Following the scan, they have something to present to their boss in terms of their own particular training needs. Alternatively, a company could do the scan for a large group of employees to discover what kind of training it needs to do on a larger scale.
The fear out there is that while populations are increasing, jobs are decreasing and a large group of people will find themselves irrelevant. Van den Broek believes this is a bit of an overstatement of the situation. “We take a more nuanced view. We’re going to launch a study with McKinsey Research Institute in a few weeks to show that while there are jobs being lost, there also new jobs coming back.”
This research, which is aimed at Europe, shows that one in six jobs are disappearing because of automation and he does not think the trends are necessarily different in other regions. “But at the same time, there are also these new jobs coming in. There is an old English statistic from 1855 and the penetration of people working in the labour force is actually the same in terms of the percentage. Then too, jobs were lost but other jobs came in. Our kids will work in jobs that don’t exist today.”
In fact, he says, the labour market is actually getting tighter. “Not in all fields, but certainly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), both at the high-end level and lower level. There’s massive demand for these profiles and this is becoming an increasingly global.”
He says markets around the world are improving and as economies improve, so will demand for skilled workers. “Europe is definitely much better than it was three to four years ago. But the demand is tougher to fill. So there is a mismatch in terms of skills, demand and supply.”
Randstad has been doing outplacement for more than 20 years. “What happens is when people lose their jobs, we sit them in front of a screen and we say to them, go find a job that you like. Not unnaturally, they look for a job similar to the one they had just lost. But that job, or type of job, might have disappeared.
“So we then try to rewire them. We discuss what they are good at and what they like doing and then we might try to get them to take a totally different route. Because, as I said, some jobs are disappearing,” he says.
How do you survive in the face of this disappearance? “There are some jobs that can’t be automated and there are jobs where you use your personality. Because technology is still a long way from replacing things that are core to humans — like reaching out to people, working in a team, selling something, servicing something. And that, in our view, is where the demand will be.”
After all, a human being is still the most complex invention in the world. “A human being with his intuition, memory capacity, reaching out to different people, creating atmosphere in conversation … it will take years for technology to replace that. And that’s why we introduced Tech&Touch in our company. We are using a lot of technology but we are using it to make our consultants connect in more valuable ways with clients and candidates.”
Randstad launched its Tech&Touch strategy a couple of years ago using the Randstad Innovation Fund to learn about and source HR technological solutions and couple it with the human touch to drive its business forward.
Van den Broek reiterates the need for a proactive approach. “You have to prepare yourself and not just sit there and wait for it. You can go to a company like ours and sit down with us and have a proactive look at the labour market and your possibilities in the labour market. You will find that you actually have a lot of options.
“I think many times you need to mentally rewire yourself or get dedicated training. But it is better to do this when you are still in a job. Because if you lose your job and don’t get back into the labour market within six months to a year, it gets tougher because you lose your self-confidence, your network and a bit of your discipline,” he points out.
Randstad Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia managing director Michael Smith cuts in: “We can’t sit here and say what our kids will be doing in the future. What we can talk about is the skills that are going to be required to be successful in the future; adaptability, emotional intelligence, courage.
“I find the best advice we give to candidates — particularly in Southeast Asia where we’re seeing large amounts of restructuring and redundancies, especially in oil and gas in Malaysia and the banking and tech sectors in Singapore and Hong Kong — is to remain at the forefront by tweaking their skills to allow them to be more adaptable to the potential jobs that may exist in the future.”
There are a number of ways for them to do that, Smith adds. “If you’re still employed, your employer has a responsibility to make sure they’re providing that type of learning management system for their candidates. Secondly, there are multiple open communities such as Udacity and Lynda, which offer free courses for you in micro moments of learning, whether you’re on the train, the plane or commuting. You can listen to podcasts on your way to work, and then, on top of that, there are a number of well-funded government subsidies to help you. So even if you are short on the ability to invest in yourself at the moment, there are still some steps you can take to improve your ability to remain relevant in the future.”
Van den Broek agrees. “At the same time, we’re also advocating more public-private cooperation. The public sector has the money and many governments feel the responsibility for employment in the country. But we, the private sector, are on the streets every day. We know where the jobs are. We know what training is required. And we can help.”
What should parents do about their children’s education? “We tell them it’s much better to choose a job where you can either use your personality or your hands instead of doing a mid-level, white collar job where there is historically more status because those are the jobs that are disappearing or being re-engineered the fastest. We’re calling it the squeezed middle.”
Van den Broek points out that organisations are delayering so there is less management. “Historically, management was all about gathering and distributing information in the workplace. Relevant information can now go directly to the shop floor, so to speak. And also the financial jobs, such as book-keeping, are being automated.”
In short, the jobs of the future are not the jobs of the present. Candidates are going to have to think on their feet and be flexible enough to turn on a dime and constantly reinvent themselves. And they must use their human attributes to ensure they continue to remain relevant.