‘Digital literacy key to future of work’

A Future of Work summit last week looked at how work and the skills needed for a job are changing.

women's hand with virtual technology above


Digital skills need to be treated the same as literacy and numeracy – as essential abilities that everyone needs to live in the modern world if certain groups, and particularly women, are not to be left behind by the technology revolution, a conference on the future of work heard last week.

In the panel discussion, Mind the (Skills) Gap: Preparing for an Uncertain Future, at the Future of Work Summit, Simon Leeming, Head of the Digital Skills Partnership at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said digital skills needed to be on an equal footing with literacy and numeracy.

Participants added that it was not just about changing early education: a general culture shift was needed as well as a  move towards a mindset of continuous learning.  Leeming said that in addition to curriculum change, there needed to be conversion courses and digital boot camps for employees. He added that this was an issue for all employers. “All businesses will be digital businesses,” he said.

He added that the way we work would be changed by the move towards a more gig economy approach to work. People would have lots of different jobs or multi-jobs in the future, he said, and would have to be adaptable to rapid changes and have an ability to acquire new skills.

Speaking about the tech sector in particular, Sarah Atkinson, Chair of the Diversity & Skills Council at techUK, said there needed to be many pathways into a technology career. The panel said this would mean people were freer to move from one career to another and might encourage more women to do computer science.


The summit also included discussion of how Artificial Intelligence might affect the way we work. HR chatbots, for instance, could be used to show gaps in knowledge and show where more work needed to be done. For instance, they could highlight if there were multiple requests for information about the company’s maternity leave policy. Analytics could be used to run surveys on specific issues rather than doing annual employee engagement surveys or to highlight parts of the business with particular issues around the gender pay gap or equal pay.

Huw Jones, Talent Acquisition Manager at IBM, said AI would “augment” the workforce rather than replace it. IBM has developed Watson, its own AI system. It can reduce the cycle time for job applications by reading the many cvs that are sent in for IBM jobs and ranking applicants based on relevant skills for the posts advertised. That increased the quality of candidates, said Jones.

IBM also provides a chatbot service which interfaces with applicants. It can, for instance,  give candidates feedback on skills they might need to acquire to get shortlisted, how they can present their cv better or match them to jobs that might be more relevant to their skills. This has proven effective, he said, adding that people seemed to prefer to engage with a chatbot than with humans about HR-related questions, such as salary levels. IBM is about to launch a proactive service which will allow it to find talent based on the skills listed in job descriptions. He said this could be very important for companies looking for niche skills.

Transforming jobs

Another panel discussion at the summit focused on using technology to engage a distributed workforce. Darren Isaacs, Transformation Director at Stagecoach, spoke about how technology was transforming the kind of skills needed for a job with an emphasis on broader, soft skills. For instance, in a world of driverless vehicles he said bus driving was likely to become a secondary, teachable skill for a bus driver with customer service skills becoming more important. This might shift the type of person who is needed for the job.

Other speakers also spoke of the need for a broader skills range, more creative thinking and a greater emphasis on collaborative skills.  Workers could be based in different countries in different time zones or in rural areas. That meant a need for more agile and remote working. However, companies still needed to have an underlying culture that connected everyone which was clearly communicated.

The panel also discussed the need for management based on trust, whether jobs would become paid by task rather than hours and the need to free people up to do other things, such as doing community work.

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