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What I Learnt about Skills and the Future from being on the CHANGE Summit

Recently, I was invited to be a panelist at CHANGE Summit, organised by Mumspace. Along with a third speaker, I was seated next to Ms Chelvin Loh, Director of the Jobs-Skills Insights Division from SkillsFuture Singapore.

(For readers who don’t live in Singapore, SkillsFuture is a national movement that promotes and facilitates funding programmes for training and ‘upskilling’ for the local workforce to adapt to the changing work and economic landscape.)

Watch The Panel Discussion here

On the surface, it would seem that our perspectives would be on completely different sides of the spectrum – one, a representative of the civil service promoting training to the conventional workforce, and mine, an unorthodox astrologer campaigning for people to quit their jobs and run their own livelihoods.

I have since discovered that the two perspectives are more intertwined than I first realised.

And I think this is a discovery that more people need to have as well, if the workforce of the world is to progress from here on.

Here are the insights I got from the discussion at the Summit:

From the workers’ perspective:
Learning needs to be a way of life, not a ‘Have-To-Do’

‘I need this certificate to apply for job’

Traditionally when we talk about ‘acquiring skills’, most people simply imagine going on a training portal and registering for a course.

Possibly because of the education system most of us grew up in, for a lot of people, the concept of learning is still associated with being in a (zoom) classroom, remembering all the skills taught, and collecting a certificate at the end.

But this approach creates a host of uncertainties and disappointments, such as:

‘If I take this course, what guarantee will there be that I will find a job?’
‘I have so many certificates, but still cannot find a job’

My take is that if the objective is to get a certificate, rather than to gain a competency, then training becomes a dreary obligation, often with little optimism for their ability to contribute after the training.

‘I attended the course already, but if you ask me to perform the work, I am not confident I can do it’

What Chelvin and I both agreed with in the discussion was that, beyond just attending training, workers need to actively get their feet wet in the new environment as much as they can.

Workers obtain and retain their employment from the ability to deliver desired outcomes. This means that it’s possible to do this with or without attending a specific training course – what is more important is that this person can deliver on the job.

Although SkillsFuture facilitates structured training courses, Chelvin also agreed that alternative methods of obtaining skills can include internships, workplace learning or simply volunteering to be part of projects that the worker is passionate about and interested in.

Together with Ms Junia Tan, founder of Mumspace, who was moderator for the panel discussion, we explored the shift of the workforce towards a much higher proportion of knowledge workers as opposed to employees who do the grunt work.

I thought that workers would then have to recognise that work quality would shift from being determined by time and effort put into a job, towards work quality being determined by the quality of ideas, discussions and mental contributions that progressed a team’s project.

In this respect, the panel was very optimistic about the future in terms of more flexibility of time and even work scopes for workers, since it was reasonable to expect a lot of the tedious grunt work to become more automated with time.

Chelvin also brought up the observation that there was a general discomfort with constant change in the workplace, which was brought to the fore especially during pandemic-related disruptions.

My takeaway from this is that a lot of workers had become quite stressed from the unrelenting pace of dynamic changes that occurred in the work environment, and I think many people are waiting for things to settle back into a stable routine, like it had pre-pandemic.

Problem is:

I don’t think that ‘stable routine’ is ever going to come back

and the rest of the panel concurred. From now on, job demands will be ever-changing, as would platforms and technology and even the way people do things.

In my webinar series (link here) I have explained in astrological terms, how the world had already entered the Air Era.

The Earth Era that came before this began at the start of the Industrial Revolution, which saw the birth of ‘earth’ work parameters like: employment at a company, a fixed salary, a fixed work scope, organisational hierarchies and chain of command, education of children solely to prepare them for this form of employment.

But as of Dec 2020, the shift to the Air Era became permanent, and the Earth Era is no more. Work in the Air Era is characterised by communities and teams rather than convoluted hierarchies, sharing of resources within a team rather than fixed salaries, dynamic movements and project-based contracts rather than a permanent job.

For this reason, three new developments will become the norm:

    1. Training and learning will become a lifelong, constant activity, and we will no longer see training courses as something to do once a year to clock training credits. Instead, workers will continuously acquire and share their experiences and knowledge, to combine various approaches and know-how to meet dynamic demands of their role.
    2. Due to the pace of work and the proximity of workers to the project at hand, knowledge workers will increasingly have a say on where projects end up and their individual impact on projects will become very profound, unlike in the past where workers could fade into the background and simply be a cog in the wheel – each worker is a living, breathing, powerful member of a team.
    3. Since projects will move rapidly, from phase to phase, it’s possible that some skillsets will not be required on a constant basis. For example, a water filtration engineer may only be required at a rocket company for the installation of the water filtration system, but becomes redundant once that phase of the project is completed. This means that it will be common for workers to be constantly on the move, simply staying on only for as long as they can contribute to a project, unlike in the past where an employee would expect ‘job security’ in terms of staying, no matter what, unless they retire, quit or get fired. 

I think some workers have waited a long time for this day to arrive; and those who are raring to go, to take a bigger piece of the direction, will thrive in this new environment.

Conversely, it’s possible that if workers expect to continue in a constant, repetitive, predictable environment where they simply carry out instructions of a higher authority, they will feel very uncomfortable and insecure about their livelihoods.

From the employers’ perspective:
The new role is Team Leader, not Boss

The most interesting sharing of the panel discussion for me, was when Chelvin shared that while employees were very open and enthusiastic about taking on more proactive roles in the workplace, it was actually the employers who were more resistant to this idea, with many believing that employees were ‘not ready to do more knowledge-based and self-expressive work’.

Although my first instinct was to refute that, I realised a second later that it actually rings true.

The SkillsFuture survey findings are probably right, even if we only look at anecdotal observations. Consider how often we hear phrases like:

‘They say they want our ideas, but when we share, nothing actually changes, so what’s the point?’
‘My boss says the company is not ready for such disruptive ideas’
‘We need to find someone who can fit this role, and carry out the job the way it’s designed’

A lot of attention has been put on The Great Resignation, a worldwide phenomenon that saw employees quit their jobs before the during the pandemic, even without another job waiting.

The ease of doing business online meant that many competent workers took to starting their own enterprises online, with trendy, work-from-home setups. The rest began demanding more schedule flexibility and expression, and were not afraid to depart voluntarily if they felt stifled, resulting in high turnover rates.

Much has been made of how a large proportion of these employees were millennials, and how they couldn’t sustain their commitment to a job or how they constantly demanded avenues of self-expression rather than do the job they were hired to perform.

In recent years, especially during the pandemic when lockdowns necessitated the rapid transition of business activities online, and when young, tech-savvy employees were most crucial to operations, many companies struggled to retain their commitment to their jobs.

This might mean that aligning employers’ expectations and providing employees with the workplace opportunities may be the missing link in the transformation of the world’s workforce.

Much as employees can no longer expect permanent, salaried employment as a default in the Air Era, employers also cannot expect docile, passive workers who are willing to be seen and not heard.

The shift in the Eras also brought some disillusionment with systems of the Earth Era, such as the inefficiency of red tape, especially in the light of several exposes of company protocols designed to protect the interests of the few elite at the expense of the majority workers. It is understandable that the workforce is looking for a viable alternative.

As such, the Air Era brings several new ways of working that employers need to embrace:

    1. Employees of the future will not bow down to traditional notions of seniority, that which is merely based on years of experience or company designation. Influence and power within a work team is earned simply through demonstrations of the ability to get the job done. The conventional concept of getting to a pre-determined level of seniority and thereafter resting on your laurels will be a thing of the past, since team members are unlikely to agree to giving sustained remuneration without contribution from the senior member.
    2. If permanent jobs are no longer the norm in the Air Era, employers also must accept that workers may only want to participate in specific areas of a project and may not accept other peripheral responsibilities that are traditionally tied in with the job, particularly those that are seen as tedious or unrewarding. This means that companies must find ways to automate grunt work, and accept that having employees ‘stay’ long-term may no longer be the default arrangement.
    3. Companies used to work out a perfect formula, then do their best to rinse and repeat as their default operation. As seen during the pandemic, this formula has gone right out of the window. The companies that survived and thrived were not the ones who stuck to ‘business as usual’ but were those that pivoted and switched tacks quickly… and those that haven’t stopped updating and reviewing and producing ever since. Employers, it seems, are just as susceptible as employees to prefer the comfort zone of the fixed formula, and this needs to change, whether they like it or not.

Whether you are a worker or an employer (or both or neither), the pandemic years are just a sneak preview of what work life will be like for the next 160 years as the Air Era progresses.

The Earth Era ways were what got all of us here, but it is the Air Era ways that will bring us forward.

The ability of each country to adjust mindsets towards work will determine the quality of life and alignment in the Air Era, just as countries that adjusted to Earth Era were quickest during the Industrial Revolution, like the USA and many European nations, determined leadership and overall quality of life of its people.

What are you doing to facilitate your transition to the Air Era?

Join me on my upcoming Livestream, where there’ll be a deeper conversation on how to develop the skills that you need, adapt to your personal role in the Air Era.

[8 JAN LIVESTREAM Q&A SESSION]
LIFE IN THE AIR ERA:
LET’S TALK ABOUT YOUR PERSONAL ROLE

8 January 2022, Saturday
10:00am – 1:00pm (SG, GMT +8)

Register For The Livestream
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