Ritu Banga
May 25, 2016 · 4 min read

Skills Volatility — the Unfortunate Reality of our Times

How do we, as the most advanced economy in the world, support workers whose skills are no longer valued or have been rendered irrelevant?

By Ritu Banga

May 25, 2016

I remember a time of relative stability in the job market. You finished high school, got a degree or went to trade school, found a job, grew your expertise in that field, stayed with that organization until you retired, and benefited from steadily rising wages as the years passed.

Today it’s different. Career paths — and consequently incomes — have become much more unpredictable. Some of this is voluntary, a by-product of young people’s changing perspective on work and the rise of the so-called “gig economy.” In part, however, it seems to be involuntary, with both younger and older workers taking temporary or supplemental work to continue earning or to smoothen sharp fluctuations in an income stream.

We’re finding this trend of income volatility boils down to something very basic: skills.

Someone may go to school or enter the workforce to learn and leverage a highly specialized set of skills only to find that 5–10 years into their career, those skills are no longer valued — or worse, they’ve become completely irrelevant. This worker now suffers from what we, at Zoomdojo, call “skills volatility.” Consider the energy sector, where workers in the fossil fuel industry may find themselves disadvantaged or displaced altogether as clean energy companies proliferate. Or how about manufacturing, where we’re seeing greater use of robotics and automation? Or health care, where advances in telemedicine and digital health reduce the need for technicians, care providers, and administrative staff?

The danger is that skills volatility leads directly to income volatility. When a worker’s skills lose their value, their pay is likely to fluctuate wildly as they have trouble finding work.

What can we do? We are unlikely to see an end to the relentless march of technological advancement. Businesses are not likely to stop restructuring business operations for reasons of cost and efficiency. And changes in trade, technology and business practices are some of the root causes of income volatility because they change permanently the demand for — and hence income from — specific skills.

Instead of counting on this problem to solve itself, we need to coalesce funding and collaboration among many stakeholders — including governments, businesses, educational institutions, NGOs — to address the issue of skills volatility with commitment and creativity.

Here are a few ideas:

· Smarter job search technology. Despite high youth unemployment and widespread underemployment, there are currently 5.8 million unfilled jobs in the U.S. A primary reason is that people don’t know where the jobs are. Popular job search sites represent only a fraction of the jobs available. Also, job hunters often do not realize which of their skill sets are portable to a different type of job; the lab and data skills developed as a medical technologist, for example, may be applicable in, say, the aerospace industry. Making job search databases more comprehensive and technology better able to match a job title or industry to portable skill sets could bridge this gap significantly. This is a problem we’re working to solve at Zoomdojo.

· Comprehensive databases of job seekers for 21st century workplaces. Just as the unemployed do not know where the jobs are, employers do not know who the job-seekers are and what their skills are. Not only are current unemployment databases not comprehensive; they also don’t help the employer understand which job-seekers possess the most valuable skills. Clearly, there is a pressing need for a comprehensive national registry that lets employers go beyond the usual set of technical and vocational criteria and think creatively about who they can hire to fill a position.

· More aggressive and advanced on-the-job and transitional training by employers. Can employers match ongoing training for employees to the direction they see their industry headed? In doing so, companies could better prepare employees to stay on and make the transition into using new technologies or processes. This discussion has been going on in the U.S. since the 1960s but has still not seen any systematic implementation. Proactively upgrading the portable skills of our employees would help keep the skill pool in the country current and vibrant. Even if layoffs become inevitable, this currency would enable workers to move employers and industry and continue to earn a stable income.

· Mandatory apprenticeship, internship or job certification programs during high school. Similar to driver’s ed or personal finance, we should require high school students to experience different jobs and visit various workplaces as part of their regular curriculum. By understanding the nature of work and learning for themselves which skills employers value, students will be better prepared to make higher-education decisions — and eventually enter the job market with a more effective and nimble skill set. Our lawmakers should consider legislation for high school students along the lines of the bipartisan Apprenticeship and Jobs Training Act of 2015.

These are some of the things we’re thinking about at Zoomdojo. But we’d love to hear from you as well. Join our conversation on social media with #futureofwork. And, of course, feel free to respond here on Medium.

Ritu Banga is co-founder of @zoomdojo, a college to career initiative; also a trustee of @MarymountNY. Trusted expert and advisor on education, career development, job training, youth employment and the workplace. Committed to access to success for inner-city public school students from high school through college to career.

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