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The New Work Ecosystem

How Automation Is Changing the Nature of the Skills Gap


Technology may be the most obvious industry to suspect when discussing the current (and future) skills gap, but other industries also are likely to experience talent shortages, and it would be in employers’ best interests to take notice — and action — now.

“I have no doubt there is a skills gap, and it’s growing pretty quickly,” said Ravin Jesuthasan, managing director and global practice leader at Willis Towers Watson. In his mind, other industries that will feel the talent pinch include health care, manufacturing and even financial services (e.g., banking, insurance).

This ongoing shortage will specifically include the types of skills that are emerging due to the changing composition of work rather than a shortage of more traditional skills that will not be as in demand in the future. For example, Jesuthasan said, there has been a lot of talk about employers struggling to and manufacturing labor. At the same time, though, automation can do much of that same work quicker, cheaper and more safely than those elusive humans who employers are seeking but can’t seem to find.

Jesuthasan said that with the way that work is changing, a new ecosystem is being created that will require different skills.

“One thing that often gets glossed over when people talk about AI and robots is the fact that we’re moving away from the equipment of the ’50s and ’60s, which were single-purpose, fixed robots,” he said, adding that today’s robots are mobile and have some form of intelligence and a series of sense that allow them to interact with us. The most important thing? They are multipurpose and can constantly switch from one task to another.

“What we’re increasingly in need of are people who can train today’s robots on those different tasks. So, I think the ability to sort of upscale the machine continuously is a skills gap that we’re continuing to see,” Jesuthasan said, adding that virtually every industry is affected by what he also refers to as a “skills imbalance.”


“It’s not like we’re short of people with skills. We’ve got plenty of those,” he said. “The problem is, the skills they have are completely different from the ones we need going forward.”

In Angie Keller’s mind, there will undoubtedly be a skills gap in the United States in the next two to three years, and beyond. And when it comes to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the gap is even more acute.

“In today’s digital world, a whole range of STEM skills — from statistics to software development — have become essential for jobs that never would have been considered STEM professions before,” said Keller, who is vice president of recruiting at Randstad Engineering.

The people who are missing, according to Jesuthasan, are those who can take on the nonroutine, creative, problem-solving, high emotional quotient (EQ) and high empathy types of tasks. It’s those who can be part of the new support system for maintaining and teaching automation. Within every job lies routine tasks that can be automated. Once those tasks are automated, though, the jobs that remain are nonroutine duties that must be reaggregated into new types of work and new types of jobs.

“One of the biggest trends we’re seeing is the skills needed to have AI be useful in different industries, domains and functions,” Jesuthasan said.

Keller offered the example of coding, which can be considered the gateway into the world of STEM. To fill certain roles, employers may look at nontraditional or atypical backgrounds rather than bachelor’s degrees in specific fields.

She also noted that employers across many industries are snapping up talent with digital skills, but aren’t necessarily upskilling the existing workforce. That’s led to a gap in the talent pool that will continue to widen if not addressed. It’s also leading to more flexible work arrangements to accommodate top talent, Keller said.

“A shift in thinking needs to happen now or businesses risk a skills shortage in the long term, with a significant section of the workforce ending up unemployable in the near future,” she said.

Upskill to Build the Business, Retain Talent

In an increasingly automated world, Keller said it’s especially important to help employees learn how to work alongside AI. Employers, for instance, should provide interactive guidance to employees working in an automated environment.

“Learning on the job is a great way to upskill, as it forces people to adapt new skills quickly,” she said.

Dan Boccabella, vice president of product management at HR-software company SumTotal, said training will become critical in addressing the skills gap. Plus, learning opportunities and professional development programs keep people engaged and help retain young professionals.

“To stay ahead of the skills gap, employers should create individualized development paths to help every employee better understand their role, expectations and focus, while also resolving any capability gaps along the way,” he said.

Helping employees develop their skills also leads to higher employee retention, he said, citing research that found that development opportunities are one of the most critical determining factors for employees when deciding whether to remain with an employer.

Most of all, solving the skills shortage is a long-term game requiring a strategic approach, according to Jeff Skipper, CEO of Peacebridge Performance Inc., who works with Fortune 500 companies and aspiring non- pro ts. For example, while working with IBM Corp.,

Skipper helped implement a program for developing IT architects, a hot commodity at the time. “Our goal was to begin building skills immediately and meet demand in two to three years’ time,” he said. “It would take that long to produce our first graduates.”


Whether it’s being smarter in recruiting and retention or taking a “grow your own” approach to bridging the expected skills shortage, there are solutions.


Employers need to take an intensely proactive approach with recruiting and retention, said Dan Boccabella, vice president of product management at SumTotal.

“Recruiting and retention need to be looked at more as core functions now and in the future,” he said. “Highly skilled workers tend to look at job seeking as a constant activity; therefore, the most successful companies will target potential new employees the same way marketers target prospects.”

A pre-boarding program can show new hires the company’s commitment to training and closing skills gaps. Also, it gives new hires a chance to feel connected to the company and begin engaging before they start. It can increase pre-hire retention and decrease time to proficiency when bringing in new employees to close those identified skills gaps.

“It’s far more efficient and less expensive to train and advance current employees,” Boccabella said, adding that employers also need to constantly recruit current employees by ensuring individual career goals are tied to the organization’s strategic initiatives.

“You ensure they are contributing to the success of the company and feel like valued members of the organization,” he said. “That way, you retain and cultivate smart and hardworking employees.”


More employers are partnering with universities to bring attention to in-demand specialties, said Jeff Skipper, CEO of Peacebridge Performance Inc.. Those employers realize they need to get in on the ground floor to begin shaping interest and attitudes toward key disciplines.

“Organizations like Microsoft and Google partner with universities to create brand identity with their future workforce,” he said. “Savvy companies check their external indicators and manage them actively, things like reviews on Glassdoor and Google. Most would never consider asking current employees to write a testimonial about their workforce, but why not?”

Marketing early also can attract the best talent in the fields you know will need support, he said, adding that smart employers are looking ahead to their future skills needs and building or positioning to harvest the best talent now.

“They’re using visioning exercises and the creation of talent stories to define their needs,” he said.

But old-school strategies still work, too, Skipper affirmed. For example, think about things like convincing parents to encourage their kids to apply to STEM programs.

“Employers need to craft appeals for parents who still have influence over their children’s career interests,” he said. “Sponsoring events at local high schools can’t hurt … who wouldn’t want their child to work for Google or Apple?”


Not only is it critical for employers to hire the right people from the start, it’s also important to ensure employees remain engaged and satisfied on the job. For example, salary is a major factor in employee satisfaction, yet wages have remained stagnant for about the past decade. Only one-third of employers increased their salaries in 2016, while 60% kept them the same as in 2015, according to “Randstad’s Workplace Trends” data from 2016.

“Increased turnover rates and recruiting difficulties among employers can be directly connected to the absence of wage growth,” Keller said. “Other strategies, such as offering pay-based incentives, investing in training and development programs, as well as developing individual career paths for each employee can further decrease turnover.”


With unemployment at a low 4.3%, it may also be time to look outside the traditional workforce and find ways to accommodate unique schedules or needs.

Cat Aldrich, vice president of operations at HireRight, said she’s seeing trends like “total talent management” on the rise among her clients. This strategy allows employers to put together a workforce from many sources, including contingent, part-time and full-time workers, to complete a project while bringing on a highly sought skillset that is lacking in-house. Other strategies, like allowing flexible schedules and remote work, may increase the number of candidates from which to choose.

“Temporary or contingent employees may be the best solution to filling some openings,” she said. “Make sure you do your due diligence on these employees as much as you would a full-time or in-house employee to ensure they’re a cultural and professional fit, and that you’re both getting the most out of their time with the company.”

Send the Right Message

“People are the key factor linking innovation, competitiveness and growth for companies today, but securing skilled workers is getting more complex and challenging than ever before,” Keller said. She also noted that, as employers increase their hiring activity, low unemployment means business leaders must work harder at hiring and keeping quality talent — particularly as employees gain options and confidence in the job market.

Employers also will need to drive the right message particularly to Millennial workers, according to Boccabella, who said that this audience needs to understand how their jobs contribute to the bigger societal picture. For example, in a tech company with a large Millennial workforce, it’s important to deliver the message that their work is having a positive effect and helping the company overall.

“The stark reality is that, in order to bridge the talent gap, organizations must focus on molding and developing the modern workforce to provide measurable business results,” he said.

Jesuthasan said the skills shortage brings to mind a “haunting” line from Alvin Toffler’s 1973 book, “Future Shock.”

“It says that ‘the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who can’t read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn,’” he said. “And that absolutely in a nutshell captures the essence of the challenge that we as kind of a global society are going through when it comes to skills and work.”


Anyone who doubts that the nation’s employers are facing a talent shortage that’s expected to last for at least the next two to three years (if not longer) only needs to hear what employers are saying. To wit:

  • The C-suite and HR agree that the competition for talent will continue increasing, with 43% of respondents to Mercer’s 2017 global study, “Empowerment in a Disrupted World,” expecting the competition to be significant. “The talent scarcity challenge is keeping everyone awake at night,” according to the report.
  • 62% of companies who responded to HireRight’s 2017 Benchmark report said finding qualified job applicants is their top business challenge.
  • The second biggest threat to an organization’s ability to meet business performance targets is the inadequate supply of qualified, skilled talent, according to “Randstad’s Workplace Trends” report from 2016. 79% of respondents said that when positions become available in their organization, they struggle to find people whose skills match the job requirements.
  • In the next decade, 3.4 million manufacturing jobs are expected to become available, according to a 2015 study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, a Washington-based think tank. But a skills gap could result in 2 million of those jobs remaining unfilled.