Highly human profiles in the age of robots

Social skills are being viewed as keys to success in a work environment dominated by technology.

TEXT: RAMÓN OLIVER PHOTOS: THINKSTOCK

“Technological development and the consequent changes in business models mean that continually adapting their professional skills is a fundamental factor if people are to be able to participate successfully in the labor market. Moreover, those who are not capable of making this effort are doomed to be left behind.” This is one of the conclusions of the report The Future of Work: Jobs and Skills in 2030, a study conducted in February 2014 by the Commission for Employment and Skills for the UK government.

It is just one of the many voices all around the planet – although one of the few speaking out on behalf of a national government – which is warning about the panorama we can expect to see in the next few years on the labor front. Another recent report – The Skills Revolution. Digitization and Why Skills and Talent Matter – produced following an international survey by ManpowerGroup of 18,000 executives from 43 countries, revealed that three out of four business leaders believe that automation will call for new skill sets over the next two years. “We cannot slow the rate of technological advance or globalization, but we can invest in employees’ skills to increase the resilience of our teams and organizations,” was the view expressed in the report’s introduction by Jonas Prising, Chairman & CEO of the talent strategy multinational.

There are pros and cons within these prospects, in which the unprecedented technological revolution we are witnessing plays a fundamental role. It is no secret that the new digital environments are the ones calling the shots when it comes to employment generation at the global level, nor that areas such as cybersecurity, big data, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence or machine learning stand out as the most urgent requirements companies have when seeking qualified professionals. It is clear that, in the midst of this digital revolution, emerging technologies are laying down the terms for employment in the coming decades.

Employment for lovers of the arts

Mathematicians, statisticians and programmers currently account for the vast majority of job offers. “There are not enough qualified professionals to meet the demand and, meanwhile, the need just keeps rising,” says Noelia de Lucas, sales manager at Hays. This reality is confirmed by Francisco Ruiz Antón, Public Policy Manager at Google, “The major companies are queuing up to recruit software engineering graduates; they take them all and there are simply not enough.”

But the labor market is not limited to the IT sector, nor can all the professional profiles stem from these technical fields. What happens to the humanities-related profiles? Historians, journalists, philologists, philosophers, filmmakers, fine arts graduates. What role is reserved for these professionals in this paradigm shift? Must they seek retraining or are they inevitably doomed to extinction, as happened a few years ago with the disappearance of the Philosophy and Arts course at some Spanish universities? Well, quite the contrary. The experts believe that, paradoxically, the arts careers are more alive than ever in this new technological era.

“Of course the humanities are going to have their place in this new labor reality! And a very important one!” Santiago García, co-founder of the Future for Work Institute, states categorically. “The major companies increasingly seek out these profiles because, in the end, all these technological applications are used by people, and their success depends on them being tailored to suit their users. And those with a humanities background are the ones who best know the mechanisms that mobilize people’s behavior,” he argues.

Amber Wigmore, Talent & Careers executive director at the IE Business School, is also convinced that the humanities profiles have a great deal to say in these environments. “A growing labor trend is the generation of multidisciplinary teams, comprising professionals from different fields of knowledge, among others the humanities. In this way, companies are seeking a more global vision of the challenges they face. It could be said that the humanities are essential for understanding today’s world. The professionals who have studied these disciplines often bring valuable critical thinking to the table, which ends up paying its dividends to the company they work for,” she remarks.

Along the same lines, Fernando Botella, CEO of Think & Action, stresses that, in highly competitive business ecosystems, in which organizations need continuous innovation, humanities graduates contribute a differentiating element: “the ability to contemplate reality in a non-customary manner. It is not that they are better qualified than an engineer or a physicist, but rather that they are able to see things differently from how others perceive them. A humanities professional is capable of questioning the obvious, and that is key to disruptive thinking and innovation.”

A much-needed vision

A self-driving car is traveling along a road when a pedestrian crosses in front of it. There is no time to slow down and so the computer controlling the vehicle must decide in tenths of a second whether to run the pedestrian down or swerve sharply to avoid the person, with the consequent risk of causing injury to the passengers on board or others traveling in nearby cars. This dilemma is already being analyzed today by the developers of autonomous vehicles. It will not be the only one. “Smart prostheses, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and certain technological uses are opening up a whole universe of hitherto unknown ethical implications, due to the impact they will have on society. And humanist profiles will be able to make an important contribution in this area,” says Santiago García.

Technological advances are also producing a profound transformation in work environments. They change ways of working, change motivations and change our very conception of work. Formulas such as teleworking, flexible work schedules, work by objectives or projects, or a labor force in which freelance professionals are increasingly important are all gradually setting aside such concepts as permanent contracts or clocking in from nine to five. “Jobs for life no longer exist,” Francisco Ruiz Antón affirms. Today people are at the center of the equation, and Santiago García reminds us that “the competitiveness of enterprises depends on their ability to attract and retain the best talent.” But, as the Future for Work Institute co-founder explains, it also depends on workers giving their all during the time they devote to their work. “And the humanities professionals help to achieve work environments where people perform to their full capacity,” he adds.

 

Technology giants such as Google have understood this reality only too well. Its worldwide Human Resources Manager, Laszlo Bock, already revealed this when, in a recent interview in the New York Times, he stated that “the academic record of the candidates is of no use at all.” From Google Spain, Francisco Ruiz Antón is not as categorical, although he does believe that hiring criteria have changed radically. “We’ve realized that certain cognitive skills such as empathy, leadership capacity, initiative, communication or creativity are often more important than experience or specific training for the job position in question. Because, in no time at all, the people who fulfill these characteristics will be capable of performing the task for which they are to be hired.”

Will it be these skills, more than the purely digital ones, which enable the more humanist profiles to avoid being left behind? According to Fernando Botella, there are three skills which are going to be absolutely key to improving people’s employability in the next few years. “The first is disruptive thinking. Simply distilling creative energy is not enough; nowadays real differences need to be generated, offering benefits that the others don’t have, thinking outside the box. The second is the ability to connect talent. In today’s world, you need the help of others, both within and outside the organization, so that things that really add value can happen. And, for that, you need an open, collaborative mindset. Finally, excellent execution is essential. There are businesses in which productivity is absolutely fundamental and so a key element is to have people who are capable of executing their tasks superbly.”

In an increasingly global, interconnected world, the American market stands out as a huge testing ground of successful models which, with everincreasing speed, end up crossing the pond and being implemented in Europe. Antonio Núñez, managing partner of Parangon Partners and president of the Harvard Kennedy School Alumni association, underscores how the Anglo-Saxon professionals are “increasingly geared toward specific projects and less committed long term to one particular company. There is a booming demand for freelance professionals and a kind of ‘uberization’ of the work force.”

Productivity + people

It is not a question of there being professionals who are better than others. At the management level, Noelia de Lucas feels we are moving to profiles that combine the best of both worlds. “The tendency is toward a leadership style that does not lose sight of the KPI, productivity and company profits, but, at the same time, has sufficient emotional intelligence to take the pulse of motivations within the team,” is how the Hays executive sums it up. This hybridization is also necessary in the lower echelons. And it will require great effort from everyone. “Humanists have to strive to better understand technology, and the technologists likewise to better comprehend individuals. The mere profile of a specialist is no longer enough,” explains Santiago García.

Training plays a significant role in this whole process. “The growing importance of technology and the digital world requires today’s worker to become increasingly aware of these environments and platforms,” Amber Wigmore suggests. Noelia de Lucas proposes building bridges to facilitate this transition. “Just as in the 1990s, with the proliferation of finance courses and masters for non-financial people, there is now a need for non-technical people to develop digital skills.”

As for Santiago García, he calls for a total rethinking of the way these skills should be acquired. Formats such as gamification, role-playing, MOOCs or self-learning are gaining traction in these new frontiers of learning defined by the dizzying speed of change. “Businesses need agility to be able to respond to this world undergoing continuous transformation and, therefore, require that their workers are, in turn, agile. And perhaps the way to instill agility or autonomy is not through classic training courses, but rather by employing formulas which, in themselves, include these capabilities.”

Despite this, Amber Wigmore has no doubts that training remains the best investment to ensure future employment. But this training must be adapted to suit a socioeconomic reality in continuous transformation. “Workers must continue their training throughout their careers, view knowledge updating and acquisition as indispensable allies to be able to fulfill their employment dreams,” the head of the talent area at the IE Business School summarizes the situation.

The robots are coming!

At the beginning of the 19th century, a group of English artisans who became known as Luddites set about destroying the industrial looms that had come – so they argued – to destroy their way of life. Without reaching these extremes, the new robotic era looming over the world of work is setting off quite a few alarms, with voices announcing the loss of thousands of jobs because of the arrival of these new machines. The experts, however, reject such scaremongering. The ManpowerGroup study, for example, shows that technology will replace routine manual and cognitive tasks, with the result that people may choose non-routine tasks and more rewarding jobs. “Creativity, emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility,” the report goes on, “are the skills that will exploit human potential and enable people to perform better than robots can, instead of being replaced by them.”

Nor does Ruiz Antón believe there are objective reasons to start tearing your hair out. “Any change creates uncertainty, but – as the Google executive points out – more than affecting jobs, robotization will enable tasks to be replaced and streamlined. A machine may be able to diagnose a patient with greater precision and speed, but the creativity, care or kindness of a doctor or nurse can never be replaced.”

Diversity adds value to businesses

Fundación Mapfre promotes access to the labor market through its Social Employment Program, a project which, in turn, entails various initiatives aimed at different population groups, each with their special needs and characteristics, but all of them with the common goal of joining, and adding value to, the labor market. The programs Together We Can, whose goal is the integration of people with intellectual disability and mental illness, Discover VT, focused on developing to the maximum the possibilities of Vocational Training as a gateway to employment, or the various grants to encourage the hiring of particularly vulnerable population groups seeking their first job all form part of this ambitious project. 

The progressive digitization of work environments, together with the emergence of new, more flexible, outsourced employment models, open up new challenges and possibilities in all these spheres of activity. One of the most complex is, undoubtedly, that of disability. Together We Can has become the benchmark program in Spain for the incorporation of people with intellectual disabilities and/or mental illness, acting as a facilitator and intermediary platform between the business sector and associations that represent and fight for the rights of these people.

Reciprocal adaptation

What is the role of the world of disability in the current technological revolution? For Daniel Restrepo, manager of the Social Action Area at Fundación MAPFRE, the current technological advances represent a great opportunity to boost normalization and true integration. “For example, in Fundación MAPFRE we have developed the app Soy Cappaz, an application that enables people with intellectual disabilities to lead an independent life, especially in the workplace, and enhance their professional autonomy and integration.” Among other features, this mobile application helps users remember appointments and tasks, as well as facilitating their mobility by guiding them to their destination without getting lost.

“Together We Can is not only important because it works with a particularly vulnerable group, but also because employment is the best tool for integration. The idea is to give these people the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities and skills, as worthy additions to the human capital of the company they join,” Restrepo points out. Fundación Mapfre stresses the fact that diversity adds value to society and also to companies. Under this premise, the integration of the most vulnerable groups depends, to a large degree, on eliminating a number of barriers that are often “more in people’s minds than in the real world”, the head of the Social Action Area adds. We are all different, we have different capabilities and contribute complementary values.