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Do your workers have the skills of the future?


September 30, 2021

When organizations initially discussed the future of work, conversations were largely around setting expectations among workers about the new hybrid model. Now, as people return to the office, we must think big picture about how we address the impact that the past 18 months have had on segments of the workforce. It’s not just about where work is performed; it’s about having a healthy and supported workforce with the right skills to perform the work.

Everyone was hit hard by the pandemic, but there has been a disproportionate impact on minorities. This means businesses should take disproportionate steps to re-engage people to work successfully as we return to the office.

People need the right skills to operate in this new, digitally enabled environment. And organizations that create strong relationships between technology and people (enabled by new skills and ways of working) are better positioned for future growth.

So, how do we continually train a variety of workers in the most efficient manner possible so they gain new skills? How do we recognize transferrable skills and knowledge and ensure that people have opportunities to grow and thrive? If we don’t address these questions now, the skill chasm that started during the pandemic will only widen.

Skilling all for the future of work

There are short-term and long-term considerations as businesses shape their plans for developing skills across the workforce. Consider these ideas as a starting point.

1.  Establish a culture of continuous learning

Businesses are under immense pressure to deal with the current labor crunch. Just recently, I spoke with several retail leaders about the challenges they face in finding workers to cover basic needs, such as filling shifts. Prospective workers have options, and one way for employers to differentiate is by offering a culture that provides access to ongoing education. Acquiring new skills not only helps workers in new roles, but it also equips them to keep pace as the future of work evolves.

Our latest research—Better to Belong—reveals that more than two-thirds (70%) of workers agree their organization helps them meet their potential by implementing a program of training, skilling and education. While this number may sound promising, there is work to be done—especially in regards to providing the right learning opportunities for all segments.

For example, Target is partnering with education platform Guild to offer workers access to undergraduate and master’s degrees, certificates and 1:1 coaching.  Walmart, through its Live Better U program, is helping workers to do everything form learn a new language or skill through on-demand training to earning a college degree. Walmart recently announced that it will pay 100% of college tuition and books for its associates. The company recognizes that a skilled and well-trained workforce is a win for employers, customers and the business.

Programs like these illustrate that skilling is not a-one-and-done deal. Skilling and learning must be ongoing, especially now as the longevity of skills is different. Years ago, the lifespan of a skill was 15-20 years. Today in the digital world, skills last just 3-5 years before they need to be revisited. It’s important to determine the mechanism by which your business will measure the lifespan of skills. And, furthermore, ensure there are a variety of opportunities for your people to continuously learn.

2.  Improve skills equitably

As the culture of continuous learning takes shape, businesses must be mindful of cultivating skills in an equitable manner. This includes the critical segment of workers that exited the workforce during the pandemic. Businesses need to bring back people who may have fallen through the cracks of no fault of their own.

Some had to stop working to care for children at home. What do they need to feel supported and Net Better Off? What skills do they need to be successful? For instance, when it comes to emerging technologies, our research revealed that the skill gap between ethnic minorities (52%) and others (40%) is highest for blockchain, applied intelligence, IoT and cloud computing.


of ethnic minorities are at a disadvantage when it comes to skills related to emerging technologies: blockchain, applied intelligence, IoT and cloud computing

Equitable skilling will deliberately account for the needs of a variety of workers who are essential to the future workforce. Women have the longest runway to an equitable work experience. They also have the most to gain—unlocking 4.7x their potential—if their everyday experiences are managed better.

3.  Customize for greater impact

Skilling should not be a “peanut butter” approach in which you try to do everything for everyone. Not everyone likes their peanut butter the same way. For some, it can be too much in a sandwich, for some too little, and for others it’s just right. Look at each person as an individual when it comes to skilling. Understand the foundation on which they gain knowledge. What are their goals and aspirations for their future of work, not just for that of the business?

If we get serious about skilling, we must think about how to do it more efficiently. This calls for creating a personalization engine of sorts that can recognize skills individuals already possess and illuminate any gaps. Looking further ahead into the future, we will see the emergence of a “skill passport” enabled by blockchain that captures a person’s skills into a transferrable record that can travel with them throughout their career journey. There is simply no reason to reinvent the wheel at every step of a person’s work experience.

Step into the future

As the future of work unfolds, so will your approaches to cultivating skills across the workforce in an equitable way. You won’t be able to do it all in isolation. Think about ecosystem partners and identify the ones that can help. Perhaps they bring the technology component, or the training component. Work together to meet the needs of all workers.

Think about the time horizon for preparing people for the future of work. To skill workers for the future, you should look at the next three to five years and determine what will be the necessary skills in the market. Allow sufficient time to develop those skills.

The future of work is happening now. What is your plan to give all workers the skills they need to succeed?

See more on Workforce Insights


Nicholas Whittall

Senior Managing Director – Accenture, Midwest Retail Lead