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Skills of the future

The new collar professions

The dichotomy is not just between white-collar and blue-collar work. The world of employment is changing and a university degree is no longer enough. In the future, particular skills such as creativity and emotional intelligence will count more than traditional studies. Many companies are recruiting staff according to new criteria; the only certainty is that maths will become increasingly important.


For years in the United States having a degree was the key to getting a good job. With a university degree you could aspire to white-collar work, otherwise you were destined for blue-collar labour.

A degree is still important today but things are changing. Among the big companies the idea is gaining momentum that, in an economy that is experiencing profound transformation due to the digital revolution, the selection of personnel cannot continue according to the same rigid pattern of years gone by. Professions are changing and it is becoming increasingly important to evaluate candidates’ skills, the abilities that enable them to adapt to the huge changes taking place. Sometimes these can even assume greater importance than a good university degree.

There is a term to describe this new type of worker: new collar. Recently using the term was IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. In a list of possible economic reforms delivered in November to the United States president Donald Trump, she suggested creating the conditions to develop new collar jobs. “Nowadays to get a job at IBM a degree is not necessary: what counts more are skills”, she wrote, clarifying that for some time in sectors that are still developing such as cyber security, science data, artificial intelligence and cognitive business, IBM is recruiting based on candidates’ skills.

Among the new recruits is Sean Bridges, a young man of 25 from the Appalachian area. He does not have a degree and for some time he tried without success to find himself a job: it was pointless. However, Sean Bridges has a particular skill: he knows how to substitute and modify the components of a PC. With these credentials he arrived for an interview with IBM in 2013 and he was hired.


His story is mentioned in the introduction to a long article in which the New York Times describes the rise of the new collar. The phenomenon is not only confined to IBM, however. Microsoft, for example, has invested 25 million dollars in the programme Skillful, launched by the Markle Foundation that organises courses and workshops, to rethink our perceptions of employment beginning with the assumption that the transformations currently taking place have an impact equal to those of the passage from the agricultural economy to the industrial economy. Skills are needed to perform both the new jobs that are being created and those that have always existed but which are set to change significantly. For example, manufacturing will become increasingly intelligent with an emphasis on research and development, digital and the Internet of Things. Skillful works to transfer to workers the right skills in order to find jobs in this sector.

Also the large research centres and the big global organizations that work in the fields of economics and employment believe that nowadays skills are increasingly decisive. “Without urgent and calibrated action, capable of managing the transition towards a workforce equipped with the appropriate skills, governments will have to face growing unemployment and inequality, while companies will see their consumer bases thin out. A degree is important, in terms of education and culture, but what youngsters are learning today at university is not enough to survive in the new employment market,” claimed Klaus Schwab, founder and director of the Davos World Economic Forum speaking a few months ago. Schwab added that the most useful skills, in the coming years will be those relating to maths, IT, architecture and engineering.

 “The Future of Work” was the theme at the heart of the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2016, with the publication of a report focused mainly on the skills linked to the Fourth Industrial Revolution: artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, genetics and biotech. Comparing the most sought after skills in 2015 and those forecast to be in demand in 2020 those that stand out are creativity, emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility (the latter two skills were absent from the 2015 list), while less in demand are the skills of coordinating others and negotiation skills, tasks that will be progressively entrusted to machines.

 “Skills disruption” will have a 42% impact on infrastructure, 39% on mobility, 35% on Information and Communication Technology, 33% on professional services and 30% on energy. The demand for specialists in biochemistry, nanotechnology and robotics, experts in geospatial information systems, specialist sales agents with expertise in technology and finance, data analysts, security experts and database and network professionals, will grow.

Also in Davos this year, a study presented by the multinational consultancy group Accenture, conducted on a sample of 10 thousand workers from ten different countries, confirmed that the development of skills such as leadership, critical thought, creativity and emotional intelligence can even partially offset the reductions in the number of jobs that are lost due to the advance of automation. According to the research, if it were possible to double the pace at which workers develop these skills, the share of jobs at risk would fall from 10% to 4% by 2025 in the USA, from 9% to 6% in the UK and from 10% to 5% in Germany. To do so it is necessary to accelerate reskilling, rethink work according to human potential and face the lack of specific skills by studying long-term solutions such as public private partnerships capable of implementing specific training programmes.

Another multinational from the human resources sector, the Manpower Group, in its annual Talent shortage, reported that the percentage of workers who, following specific training, are re-employed by the same company has more than doubled in one year, passing from 20% to 50%. However, 40% have difficulty in filling the void created by the demand for new professional expertise and skills.

Many traditional jobs will be performed in new ways. The study Jobs and Skills in 2030, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, a working group financed by the British government, imagines that “in the health sector staff could assist patients remotely with tools for diagnosis and monitoring,” or that in the construction industry “automation will demand new abilities to install, maintain and repair machines, while the engineers will use digital models to design and physically create projects.”

According to David Deming, mathematics will be increasingly important. A Harvard Professor, Deming believes that it will be top of the list of skills. To demonstrate this, he analysed historical data, reaching the conclusion that, already in the period 1980-2012, the jobs that have become more widespread are those based on mathematical knowledge. In the European Union, for example, between 2000 and 2011, employment has grown particularly in the sectors that involve STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). The increase has been equal to 34% compared with an average of 8% across the EU for all professions.

And languages? Knowing another language will obviously make a difference, especially in a globalized planet with new international players on the economic and political scenes. It could, however, be worthwhile to learn a more unusual language, as the Washington Post suggested some time ago, indicating Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and Indonesian as alternatives that in the business world look set to grow in importance in the coming years, in addition to Chinese, obviously. But Chinese is such a complex language that is difficult to read and write and it has many dialects. Probably it will be some time before it can begin to challenge the status as “world language” that English currently boasts.