Is Technology Outpacing The Workforce?

Meaghan Sullivan

In January, the world’s top politicians and business leaders gathered in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum’s annual conference to discuss the issues and challenges around what has been defined as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The topic was both riveting and concerning as the attendees explored all aspects of this new revolution.  We are living in the midst of it right now, the Forum declared.

Previous Industrial Revolutions were:

  • The First Industrial Revolution, starting 1784 — Water and steam mechanize production.
  • The Second Industrial Revolution, starting in 1870 — Electricity boosts mass production.
  • The Third Industrial Revolution, starting in 1969 — Information tech automates production.

The Fourth is the fusion of the physical with the digital in the rise of self-organizing production. With technology evolving so rapidly, many workers have been left behind, including middle managers and IT professionals who have somehow kept spreadsheets alive for the past few decades. The digital economy is disrupting entire industries on every on continent, making some of them obsolete virtually overnight.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that millions of workers will be displaced from certain jobs and industries through at least 2020. These traditional and once reliable professions are undergoing massive declines. Among the many workers who need retraining are farmers, cooks, data entry specialists, sales professionals, electronic assemblers, file clerks, prepress technicians, computer operators, refinery managers, financial advisors, and florists.

As CNN reported, the entire workforce is shrinking as jobs that have supported professionals for generations become unnecessary. This Fourth Industrial Revolution demands that we — companies as well as educational institutions — figure out quickly how to train and develop a new workforce. We need to prepare the next generation for the innovations of a mobile and digital world.

While the workforce is straining to acquire new skill sets, employers are at a loss as to how to improve workforce productivity. Basically, all over the world, business are struggling to find enough workers capable of doing what must be done. Thus we see both widespread unemployment and jobs going unfilled at the same time.

I see the need for rapid re-skilling as the number one challenge of our age. As technology redefines what employers need from the workforce, we need to get ahead of the curve earlier. We need training that teaches workers of all ages not just how to perform certain tasks but how to adapt. The ability to be retained on new technology is the modern equivalent of literacy.

Right now, millennials (in the 16-35 age range) are a bit ahead of the game because they grew up using computers and are more accustomed to rapid changes in technology. Their higher education has prepared them a bit better to prioritize lifelong learning. For the more mature workers (in the 35-60 age range), securing adequate skill sets has become a serious problem and will be for decades. These workers have an incredible well of experience to draw from, but now the question is how to apply that experiences and maturity within the framework of entirely new industries.

How much responsibility for professional development and retraining will fall on the employees themselves? What level of resource commitment must be made by companies that depend on these new skills and the drivers of these new technologies? These are not easy questions, and even thornier answers are only beginning to emerge. The key to finding those answers is to make sure that each of us is looking carefully at our own skills and what the market needs.

I recommend that business planners at all levels within the modern organization start taking actions to solve this skill deficit. Education, professional training, and professional development need to move up on the business priority list. There are boundless advantages and opportunities opening up as a result of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The only real question is whether your company and your employees can adapt fast enough.

I feel fortunate to be part of an organization in which where employees are committed to continuous learning. We strive to explore the reaches of our potential beyond the four walls of our company and to prioritize wonder. Team members are encouraged to build new skills at external training centers and to bring in thought leaders from future-forward consortiums like TED Talks.

One of the top benefits of living in Silicon Valley is in having virtually instant access to leading experts, entrepreneurs, industry pioneers, engineers, and thought leaders. They have guided us in identifying the most significant trends in emerging technology as soon as they come to light. They have also kept us keenly aware that the “next big thing” might arise from anywhere in the world, especially where we least expect it. But no matter where we call home, it’s up to us as individuals and as industry leaders to help move our own organizations forward. We must continually push ourselves beyond the limitations we’ve set for ourselves and seek out the world that’s waiting.

For more insight on the evolving Digital Economy, see Digital Trends That Will Shape Your Future.


Meaghan Sullivan

About Meaghan Sullivan

Meaghan Sullivan is the head of Global Partner Marketing and General Business. In this role, she is tasked with accelerating awareness and consideration in the Small Medium Enterprise (SME) segment for SAP as well as global partner revenue through channel marketing and commercial sales practices. Sullivan focuses on Demand Generation activities to provide SAP partners with innovative programs, campaigns and resources that enable them to more efficiently market their SAP solutions and services.