We still have the chance to steer our destiny, but we need to act now
General Electric and its German rival Siemens late last year announced plans to eliminate more than 18,000 jobs at their global power businesses as faster-than-anticipated adoption of alternative energy has left the engineering giants with too many of the wrong kind of engineers.
And just weeks ago, another surprise: GE, the only original constituent of the Dow Jones Industrial Average still on the blue-chip gauge today, is considering breaking itself up. What does this all tell us about the world of work today? And what lessons might we draw about the world of work in the future?
First off, the loss of so many engineering jobs provides tragic proof, if it were needed, that people can become stranded assets too. The decisions that parents, teachers, education administrators and politicians made about which skills would be needed in the future, which careers would offer the most stability or ensure the highest returns, were often made decades ago.
That was before the widespread adoption of the personal computer, let alone the Internet. Now, government data show more than three-quarters of Hong Kong children between 10 and 14 years old own a smartphone, devices with processing power far in advance of the PCs their parents would have used to cut their digital teeth (See graphic).
“We are now at a point where previous advances are combined to create new technologies and industries at a previously unthinkable pace, largely due to exponential developments in computing power and data analytics,” says Jennifer Van Dale, who heads up the employment practice at Eversheds Sutherland law firm in Hong Kong and is spearheading AmCham’s Future of Work initiative.
The pace of change is a cause for concern: if only because it feels so unnatural. As a species, we have evolved through the trial and error iterations of biological generations. Our big brains - aided by the precision of our fingers and thumbs - enabled the application of technology that has enabled us to escape some of the limitations of generational adaptation: the end of smallpox being a prime example.
We are on the cusp of even greater change. Our processing power allows machines to learn from big data and artificial intelligence programming. Software writes software. Software tests engineering concepts at lightning speed; 3D printing allows parts to be generated on the spot. Only a few years ago, such iterations would have required specialist molds and forms forged and stamped from hot metal.
These changes pose deep and existential questions about our society and the future of work: What skills will the future workforce need? Where will those skills be acquired from? What happens to those left behind by the pace of change? Who gets to benefit from the changes, and should they be required to share those gains with the less fortunate?
Technological changes aren’t solely restricted to the hardware and software that combine to form our built environment. Biotechnology is revolutionizing agriculture and medicine - and raising fundamental moral and societal questions over augmentation. Should genetic advances be democratized? Or will gene-enhancements become part of society’s wealth-based divisors?
Indeed, some of the big drivers behind the transformation of work aren’t driven wholly by technology. Global demographics move at a glacial pace when compared with the world of microchips. Aging populations, migration and development goals will all feed into the dynamics of world labor markets, global trade and investment patterns and the growth of industries such as robotic care for the elderly. Sociological changes will be another key: diversity; the globalization of the middle class; access to information; social media; lower cost transport.
The growing clamor in the global media over these questions reflects both the spreading realization of the digital transformation, as well as the actual impact on jobs and everyday life in the here and now. But Van Dale argues that much of the media coverage paints too-stark a picture of change: the familiar and comfortable “before,” versus a bleak and apocalyptic “after.”
“It’s more helpful to think in terms of ‘the evolution of work,’” she says. “The future of work should be viewed as a process, dependent on numerous factors, including decisions made by governments, employers and individuals.” In other words: We can all still make an impact. But to be a part of that process, we have to join the debate now.
“How do we educate and prepare our young people for a world in which many of the jobs that are out there now will soon be done by machines of one sort or another? What will replace those jobs, and how do we equip the next generation to deal with it?” – Jack Lange
Hong Kong faces an acute shortage of skillsets – some in unexpected places
Ever thought of what it takes to work on a building site or as an elevator repairman these days? Candidates may need to be as clued up on coding as they’re handy with a hammer.
“Companies with heavy equipment are turning to candidates who are able to help Hong Kong residents navigate the city via apps and cloud-based solutions,” according to Dean Stallard, Managing Director in Hong Kong for global recruiting company Hays. “Candidates with knowledge and skills across the Internet of Things, big data, apps, wireless, cloud and software are hot property.”
Buildings, power grids, buses and even street lamps are all getting smarter as the application of modern technology adds digital layers to what were previously stolidly physical industries. New sources of competition for tech savvy candidates means more than 90 percent of chief information officers in Hong Kong are planning to plug gaps with short-term or temporary staff this year, according to Robert Half, another recruiting firm.
“Many local professionals who would thrive in IT contract work are cautious about accepting this type of work because they are used to being employed on a permanent basis,” says Adam Johnston, the firm’s MD in Hong Kong. “Temporary work however can provide valuable experience to a resume and the ability to expose themselves to multiple new skillsets.”
But it’s not just technology seeping into new industries that’s behind the talent shortfall: increased investment from Mainland China and a flood of far-reaching – and sometimes contradictory – regulatory changes are also factors. They are boosting demand for more sophisticated, multilingual candidates able to navigate through complex, often cross-border assignments in Mandarin, Cantonese and English.
English-language skills have fallen far behind those in Singapore – which now ranks fifth in the world according to the annual EF English Proficiency Index (See chart).
Business aviation is one rapidly expanding sector where the shortfall is keenly felt. The industry globally operates in English, and the smaller operators often lack the recruiting savvy to seek out multilingual local talent who wouldn’t have considered themselves qualified to work as a pilot or aircraft technician. Some employers are now turning outside their typical recruitment pools for the new skillsets they need to adapt to the changing marketplace, Stallard says.
In the pharmaceutical and medical devices sector, “candidates with a creative flair rather than a medical degree are in high demand to drive marketing and sales initiatives,” he says.
Old but not out…
Retooling Hong Kong’s aging workforce offers another underexploited talent pool, says Oscar Venhuis, a co-founder of Hong Kong-based co-working space theDesk. In the flexible economy, employees will need to accept a continuous process of adaptation and training throughout their working lives, he says.
Having one of the world’s longest life expectancies is creating its own skills shortages. Degenerative conditions linked to aging are going untreated because of a shortage of specialist medical staff.