Tuesday 21 January 2020

A warm welcome to Leaving Cert students: now it's time to reveal some truths about what the wide world of work holds for you

Ireland's latest group of school leavers will have a bright future - but only if the government, employers and educators meet the challenges and grasp the opportunities created by the rapidly changing employment landscape, says Karen O'Flaherty

Karen O'Flaherty Picture: Colm Mahady/Fennells
Karen O'Flaherty Picture: Colm Mahady/Fennells

Karen O'Flaherty

As tens of thousands of young people receive their Leaving Cert results this week, it is vital they understand the seismic shift that is happening in the employment landscape and how it can impact future employability if they are not informed when choosing their future career.

The world of work is undergoing more profound and rapid change than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. The old certainties are disappearing. The concept of a job for life anywhere outside of the public service is very much a thing of the past, while technological advances are eliminating vast swathes of jobs in manufacturing and other areas.

The nature of the workforce is also changing. Today, for the first time in history, we have five generations working side by side - by 2020, the so-called Millennials (Generation Y) will account for half of the working population. This is the first generation of digital natives who expect to be technologically empowered at work and at home, and to work for employers whose sense of ethics and social responsibility are at least as strong as their balance sheets.

The question is how we respond to the challenges this new paradigm creates.

For the past three centuries the additional wealth created by the productivity gains delivered by new technologies was sufficient to replace the jobs they displaced. In the words of former US president John F Kennedy: "If men have the talent to invent new machines that put men out of work, they have the talent to put those men back to work."

But we can no longer rely on that economic model to see us through. It is not so much a case of the number of jobs which will be on offer to the next generation, but the type.

Far from a shortage of jobs in the next two decades, many experts actually predict a shortage of labour. According to Boston Consulting Group, there will be more jobs than workers available to fill them in many of the world's most advanced economies by 2030.

The key issue facing society and governments is that this labour shortage will only apply to certain sectors. A pronounced mismatch is emerging where a large surplus of unskilled or relatively low-skilled labour is developing, while a shortfall in more highly skilled and qualified workers is growing.

And this is not only the result of the decline of manufacturing in Western economies. The move up the vaunted value chain from low-level assembly to higher-end manufacturing and services is beginning to fracture with the traditionally "safe" service jobs in areas such as banking, accountancy and insurance becoming increasingly vulnerable to automation.

It was once thought that these areas were relatively immune from the rise of the robots, that the human judgment required in varying degrees to carry out these roles would ensure that the best computers could do was assist and not replace.

But with computers routinely beating chess grandmasters, Irish-developed translation technology automating that industry, and smart medical devices carrying out increasingly complex diagnoses every day, it is now generally accepted that few of these roles can resist the march of technology.

That's the world that awaits this year's crop of Leaving Certificate graduates. And it will have changed further by the time many of them emerge from university. The top 10 in-demand jobs today did not exist 10 years ago - a year before the iPhone first came to market.

Many of today's young people are being educated for jobs that don't yet exist, which will use technologies that have not been invented, to solve problems yet to be identified.

Those same young people are predicted to change jobs up to 14 times before they turn 40. This represents a significant challenge for employers to retain talent within their organisations while continuing to serve increasingly demanding and complex customers.

And many of the jobs that exist at present may no longer exist. Any role that is capable of being broken down into component process elements is also capable of being automated. In the age of big data, this puts the roles of many auditors, accountants, insurance intermediaries, medical technicians, and even journalists at risk.

Looking ahead further, the advent of driverless cars is likely to have an even more profound impact on the public transport sector than Uber and Hailo while drone technology could imperil the roles of commercial air pilots.

The new world of work will see vast numbers of jobs disappearing but being replaced by even more new jobs at what might be described as the creative end of the spectrum. These jobs include the scientists and engineers who develop the new technologies which are displacing the other jobs - but also cover areas like the arts, all areas of personal therapies, many strands of education, sports, and much else besides.

We are fortunate in Ireland that we have always scored well in this increasingly lucrative area. The challenge now for our government, the education system, employers and all the other stakeholders involved is not just to prepare the current generation for the sometimes frightening new world which is fast approaching, but also to retrain and reskill existing workers to take advantage of the new opportunities which will arise even as their own roles are disappearing.

That will require investment in the education system not only to offer the subject choices required to meet future needs but to deliver the career guidance required by students facing an increasingly complex and technological world.

It will also require employers everywhere to place a far greater emphasis on areas like environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility if they are to retain the talent of tomorrow.

This is a future of uncertainty and fear for some. For others, it's a world of excitement and anticipation of the unknown - but it's a golden opportunity for Ireland and we should lose no time in grabbing it with both hands.

Karen O'Flaherty is chief operations officer of Morgan McKinley. The Irish owned firm is a global professional recruitment consultancy

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