- Employees need new technical knowledge and skills to thrive in today’s rapidly changing workplace
- Soft skills like leadership and adaptability are as important as coding and data analysis
- Workers can acquire these new skills on the job or through independent programs
As technology and automation transform knowledge work, lifelong learning is becoming an essential component of any successful career. But with limited time, what chops should you and your team focus on?
Experts point to a core set of skills—from the technical to the social—that will help keep workers current and prepare them for continued professional growth. Some, like programming and data analytics, are byproducts of the digital era. Others are social skills like communication, collaboration, flexibility, leadership, and creative thinking, all of which give people a comparative advantage over intelligent machines.
These are the top skills to learn in 2019.
It’s no secret that software developers are a prized commodity, and that demand for their skills will only increase. But in tomorrow’s workplace, coding will no longer be the sole preserve of professional coders. The McKinsey Global Institute forecasts that time spent using programming skills in the U.S. will grow by an estimated 60% over the next 12 years, virtually guaranteeing that basic coding literacy will become essential for scores of jobs.
As technology permeates every industry and profession—from healthcare to insurance and from marketing to logistics—basic coding skills will be necessary for everything from sketching prototypes to developing models for data analysis and controlling automation tools and robots.
There are many job‑specific programming languages. If your work doesn’t have an obvious fit, encourage employees to pick a general purpose programming language like Python or Ruby. There are plenty of online training options including Udacity, Coursera, and Khan Academy, and scores of intensive boot camps to choose from. An extra benefit: any programming course will also strengthen a worker’s data analysis skills.
Data is the fuel that powers the digital economy. It’s no surprise that data scientists and data analysts are among the most sought after professionals today, according to numerous studies. Of course, not everyone needs a Ph.D. in data analytics. But to be effective in today’s knowledge workplace, employees need to become more and more comfortable with data.
Take marketing, which used to rely heavily on gut instinct. Increasingly, a good marketer must be able to sift through mounds of data and present findings in multiple, interactive formats. With virtual dashboards popping up everywhere, hands‑on experience with data analytics is also becoming essential in fields like human resources, sales, customer relations, finance, retail, and more. As with coding, educational opportunities abound, online and offline, at universities and through boot camps or nanodegrees.
User experience design
Technology has helped turn scores of ordinary products and services into digital experiences. What was once a paper form to sign up for insurance, for example, has now become an online process that guides a customer through a series of steps. Similarly, a modern check‑in at a hotel is an experience that may combine human contact with a smartphone app that doubles as a digital key and sets defaults for your favorite music and temperature once you enter your room.
Because user experience designers think about why and how people use their products, they need chops that blend interactive design with product development. There are plenty of places where workers can hone their design skills, whether learning on the job or formally through online certification programs.
Tackling the technical skills behind product design requires knowing how to create user surveys and coming up with prototypes. Workers can start with easy‑to‑use online tools like Flinto or Marvel that are rich with tutorials.
One of the paradoxes of the digital age is that the job market increasingly values “soft” skills such as flexibility, collaboration, and creativity. Interpersonal skills like empathy, for example, are expected to become increasingly critical in fields ranging from nursing to teaching and financial planning, according to career expert and author George Anders. Employees who can relate equally well to customers and co‑workers will see their stars rise, says a research report from the Brookings Institution.
Project‑based learning, especially in a collaborative setting, is a good way to start sharpening social and emotional skills. If there are people you manage who could stand to improve their soft skills, consider pairing them with more socially adept colleagues on projects instead of having them work as individual contributors.
For most workers, the days of being successful by being really good at one thing are coming to an end. As the pace of change in the workplace picks up, the ability to switch gears and juggle multiple projects has become critical to professional success.
No line of work will be immune. Programmers, for instance, will need to adapt with changes in popular languages and computing frameworks. As work tools change and business models evolve, the same is true for designers and media workers, advertising professionals and retail specialists. McKinsey says businesses are increasingly valuing workers adept at “continuous learning” as all sorts of jobs are being redefined.
There’s evidence workers understand the imperative. Three quarters of knowledge workers surveyed by PwC say they’re ready to learn new skills or retrain to stay employable in future years. As a leader, one way to cultivate adaptability is to put people on multiple, smaller projects, and on work in areas outside their core comfort zones.
While tech has made incredible strides in helping us communicate and work more effectively, it can’t replace human leadership. The ability to mentor and motivate, to provide constructive feedback and to negotiate effectively are still essential—and, for the foreseeable future, out of reach of even the most intelligent machines.
Leadership skills will be increasingly important as managers work to shepherd employees into new modalities of work and into an age of human‑machine collaboration. It appears most managers aren’t yet up to the challenge: Nearly 20% of firms say their executives don’t have the knowledge to lead adoption of automation and AI. Many professional associations and private organizations offer a host of seminars and workshops focused on leadership development.
Creativity is likely to remain out of the reach of machines longer than any other skill. As a result, employers will value it more and more in their workers. In fact, McKinsey predicts that demand for creativity will grow faster than demand for any other top cognitive skill by 2030, affecting roles ranging from public relations to mobile experience design.
Creativity comes in many forms, and even the most experienced workers will benefit from sharpening their chops. Try to organize brainstorming activities for your team, either structured discussions or rapid ideation sessions. The exercises will help employees develop the ability to find unorthodox solutions to problems.