What the explosion of non-routine work means for HR

Josh Bersin describes the rise of non-routine work and how it is impacting HR decisions and the way work is carried out.

For years, economists and researchers have been predicting how automation would eliminate significant numbers of jobs. Certainly, routine work—jobs largely based on the performance of regular tasks at certain times or for specific situations—has been reduced.

However, non-routine work—jobs comprised of tasks performed at irregular intervals and often executed in different ways dependent on the situation—has exploded. This trend is creating better jobs, higher-paying jobs and jobs that require new skills.

For example, consider the automation of self-service retail, mobile phone orders and in-store kiosks. These automation tools did eliminate traditional call centre and order-taking jobs. But the high volume of new transactions has created new jobs in service delivery, customer service and support, analytics, supply chain and logistics.  Most of these jobs fall into the category of non-routine work.

Facebook (Meta), Amazon and Google now employ thousands of people to curate content, moderate social media and determine how their systems will behave. The need to “train”, “moderate” and “improve” intelligent machines is higher than ever, and these jobs are vital and pay well.

The National Bureau of Economic Research has extensively studied the shift from routine to non-routine work and confirms its significance. Not only have “occupations” shifted, but the growth rate in non-routine jobs is almost 25 times higher than the growth rate in routine jobs (based on data from 1976 through 2014).

What are these non-routine jobs?

Non-routine jobs are typically defined as “service” jobs; they fall into two overlapping categories. The Bureau of Labour Statistics publishes a long list of service-providing industry segments encompassing a wide range of jobs in healthcare, finance, education, trade, leisure, hospitality, and professional services.

These jobs make up more than 70% of U.S. employment; their average wages have been growing at more than 5% per year. A second, even more important category encompasses jobs that require skills in design thinking, communication, empathy, teamwork, and time management. Most jobs in the U.S. fall into this category in one way or another.

Sales is a good example of the shift from routine to non-routine work. While companies like Salesforce, Hubspot, Seismic and Gong are automating sales and marketing processes, the demand for salespeople has gone through the roof. Today, according to Lightcast’s latest data, there are more than 580,000 open sales jobs.

This demand is not due to economic growth; job openings are a direct result of sales automation. Thanks to CRM tools, a salesperson today spends time pouring through Salesforce, looking for qualified leads, then crafting interesting emails or phone conversations to get the attention of prospects. Has sales been automated? Not really. It has been augmented and improved by automation, but it is still a person-to-person job.

Look at roles like nursing (with the largest number of job openings in the U.S.), management (600,000 open jobs), customer service (245,000 open jobs), and even food service and hospitality (more than 275,000 open jobs). None of these jobs has been automated away; rather, they have grown in demand as more and more routine tasks become automated.

Technical skills vs. power skills

Despite the ongoing demand for scientists, engineers and technical professionals, the research also shows that technical careers, while critical and vital to our economy, are also turning into services jobs.

Recent research from IBM found that CEOs do not only want employees with technical skills, they are also desperately looking for people who are creative, can solve complex problems, manage large teams of people and deal with strategy, time management and organisational growth. Technical salaries do go up with specialisation, but almost every study of pay shows that managerial roles pay 50% to 100% more, even in highly technical domains. Yes, it is hard to hire the world’s best scientists and engineers, but try being the manager of these brilliant people. That is a really tough job.

And this leads me to an important point: We are becoming an economy based on power skills. While technical skills are certainly valuable, skills in design thinking, agility and flexibility, communications, empathy, and management are even more so. The top skill requirement on LinkedIn is not computer programming or data analytics, it is communications. And this makes sense. If you cannot listen and communicate your thoughts well, there are not many jobs you can really do.

What this means for HR and business

First, we have to expand focus beyond technical skills in training, development and recruitment. You should define these skills, continually develop them, and reward them.

Long-term business success and economic growth is now dependent on the ability to understand this shift. An interesting study conducted by the IZA Institute of Labour Economics found that the slowest-growing economies had a much larger percentage of jobs with “routine-intensive roles.” In other words, if you do not design and engineer jobs to make the shift to non-routine work, your company will suffer, as will the overall economy.

Low unemployment may be here to stay. While historically, companies have laid off workers when the economy slows, that formula seems to be changing. Why? We are constantly reinventing work and creating new jobs as others become obsolete. The fertility and marriage rates are low, and this demographic drought is creating a limited supply of potential employees. So, jobs will continue to be hard to fill.

Our new Global Workforce Intelligence study details how this shift is impacting healthcare workforces right now. The healthcare providers thriving in this difficult time are those re-engineering work, automating the routine tasks in their facilities and taking innovative approaches to train and develop people.

As I see it, the future is not a world in which technology replaces people, but rather one in which jobs continuously get better. Leveraging this trend is key to growth and even survival in the future.

By Josh Bersin, Global Industry Analyst and CEO of The Josh Bersin Company. This article was first published on Human Resource Executive.

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