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Preparing For The Future Of Work: Helena van der Merwe of A-Plus Apprentice On The Top Five Trends To Watch In The Future Of Work

An Interview with Phil La Duke

The use of technology to track worker performance will continue to expand. Companies will collect more data on their workers and that raises privacy concerns. This technology can track workers keyboard and mouse usage, monitor employee emails and other workplace collaboration tools, and even collect audio and video of workers. While the data is intended to improve efficiency, it also poses a risk to workers’ privacy and potentially worker safety as a result of the pressure it creates on workers to work faster. Workers have raised significant privacy concerns about the increase of workplace surveillance, and these workers need to be given a voice in what data is collected about them on the job and, especially, in their own homes.

There have been major disruptions in recent years that promise to change the very nature of work. From the ongoing shifts caused by the COVID19 pandemic, the impacts caused by automation, and other possible disruptions to the status quo, many wonders what the future holds in terms of employment. For example, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute that estimated automation will eliminate 73 million jobs by 2030.

To address this open question, we reached out to successful leaders in business, government, and labor, as well as thought leaders about the future of work to glean their insights and predictions on the future of work and the workplace.

As a part of this interview series called “Preparing for The Future of Work”, we had the pleasure to interview Helena van der Merwe.

Helena van der Merwe, an accomplished international and domestic marketing leader, problem solver and strategist in a number of fields, is a New Jersey Top 19 Innovator and Future of Work Accelerator participant, an InnovateHER NJ Finalist and a Summer Technology Entrepreneurship Program (STEP) instructor. One of her favorite initiatives is administered through her A-Plus Apprentice™ program which matches high school students, especially Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) students, with employers with the aim of providing full-time careers. As a pharmacology graduate, early in her career she became an award-winning leader in the release of groundbreaking clinical trial results, notably in early-stage breast cancer. With a varied career spanning many disciplines, van der Merwe is also a Rutgers Entrepreneur Pioneer Inititative graduate, a NASA Blue Sky Space Radiation workshop presenter, Committee on Space Radiation (COSPAR) 2021 presenter and a Space and Missile Defense (SMD) 2021 small business showcase presenter.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?

I grew up on a farm in South Africa with my dad, mom and two sisters who shaped the values and ethics I hold today. I am a pharmacist who earned master’s degrees in Pharmacology and Business Leadership. I worked in the pharmaceutical industry for most of my career, moving to the US two decades ago to join pharma giant sanofi as global oncology scientific communications manager.

I launched A-Plus-Consulting, the parent of A-Plus Apprentice, in 2014 in Newark, NJ at a New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) incubator space. While in the incubator, I was approached for a donation to a local school with a high percentage of autistic students. That is the moment I realized the magnitude of the problem and thought about how A-Plus can help autistic students and their families.

What do you expect to be the major disruptions for employers in the next 10–15 years? How should employers pivot to adapt to these disruptions?

The US is the leader in the technology industry, driving 40 percent of GDP with tech giants such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Tesla, and the ridesharing and cybersecurity industries. I expect technology to continue to grow where artificial intelligence and robotics interface with industries such as automotive, aerospace, construction, energy, and health.

We have entered the era of space travel where Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX now offer this new experience to an elect group of civilian astronauts, travelers and scientists.

The challenge for employers lies in finding talent with skills they need and reskilling of the workforce will be required as outlined below by the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report.

  • As adoption of technology increases, 50 percent of all employees will need reskilling by 2025.
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving top the list of skills which employers believe will grow in prominence in the next five years.
  • Newly emerging this year are self-management skills such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility.

The World Economic Forum (see above) agrees with me in foreseeing a skills-based economy rather than a job-based workforce where trained employees can perform well in various disciplines rather than one only — particularly skills needed to meet strategic goals.

The choice as to whether a young person should pursue a college degree was once a “no-brainer.” But with the existence of many high-profile millionaires (and billionaires) who did not earn degrees, as well as the fact that many graduates are saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find jobs it has become a much more complex question. What advice would you give to young adults considering whether to go to college?

I believe in the concept of natural talent and will cite my late dad, the only child after the loss of his sister at a young age.

My father was self-taught in engineering and developed a love for restoring farm equipment and vintage vehicles. These skills led him to winning the Concours Award in 1986 from The Early Ford Car Club of South Africa. My father learned his skills on the job while managing a farm.

My advice for young adults would be to pursue careers as apprentices in concentrations they love and have aptitudes for, and then enhance their skills with higher education. This gives employers qualified workers and greatly improves retention.

America has much foreign talent with degrees from other countries. I am one example in that if I wanted a job as a retail or hospital pharmacist I would have had to attend a domestic pharmacy school for another four years to earn a Pharm. D. because there is no reciprocity between this country and South Africa.

Many naturalized citizens may need new careers due to mergers and acquisitions in the healthcare sectors. Reskilling highly talented and educated individuals through apprenticeships in the government and private sectors can help to fill job vacancies and grow the economy, especially after the pandemic.

Despite the doom and gloom predictions, there are, and likely still will be, jobs available. How do you see job seekers having to change their approaches to finding not only employment, but employment that fits their talents and interests?

The pandemic shifted the needs of job seekers for flexibility to work remotely. According to Gartner, job seekers use employers as a social safety net, in which employers can grant above-market minimum wages, increase parental leave, and gender equality.

Nearly half of employees will work remotely at least some of the time. Therefore, human resources leaders need to identify new skills that enable effective and productive remote work.

Remote work has led to increases in passive data collection and in health and safety protocols. Virtual logging/clocking in and out, computer and phone use, e-mail communications, and location or movement are examples of passive employee data collection points.

The statistics of artificial intelligence and automation eliminating millions of jobs, appear frightening to some. For example, Walmart aims to eliminate cashiers altogether and Dominos is instituting pizza delivery via driverless vehicles. How should people plan their careers such that they can hedge their bets against being replaced by automation or robots?

A report published by Oxford Economics, June 2019, “How Robots Change the World — What Automation Really Means for Jobs and Productivity,” cites: “Over the past decade, a robotics revolution has captured the world’s imagination. As their capabilities expand, so does the rate at which industries purchase and install these increasingly intelligent machines. Since 2010, the global stock of industrial robots has more than doubled — and innovations in engineering and machine learning portend an accelerated adoption of robots in service sector occupations over the next five years.”

Lower-income regions of the world’s major economies feel the negative effects of robotization more. For example, a robot displaces nearly twice as many jobs compared to higher-income regions of the same country. This finding has important social and political implications.

Oregon is the most vulnerable state in the US, having had success in transitioning from traditional sectors and into the production of high-tech components. But high dependence on manufacturing, particularly in and around Portland, and the state’s exposure to globally competitive sectors, mean its workers are vulnerable to rapid technological progress.

The results of Oxford Economics Global Economic Model analysis show that jobs are both created and destroyed through the increased use of automation and industrial robots. Specifically, an increase in the rate of robot adoption would significantly affect firms’ productivity levels, and hence the size of the economy.

This increased wealth is therefore likely to result in job creation that will offset the displacement of local manufacturing employment. The jobs displaced by industrial robots will be concentrated in the manufacturing sector — where their uses are most well established. And while some new manufacturing jobs will be created, it is unlikely they will equal the number of jobs that could be displaced by automation in that sector — up to 20 million around the world by 2030. Historically, low- and medium-skilled workers displaced from an increasingly productive manufacturing sector have found opportunities in the service sector.

The biggest skills shortfalls appear in such skills as negotiation and customer service orientation, where humans typically demonstrate a distinct advantage over robots.

In a nutshell, Oxford Economics’ recommendations for workers are:

  • Audit your own job to better understand the balance between unique human skills and automatable skills to compete in the right areas and make your job more “robot proof.”
  • Adopt a “lifetime learning” mindset. Unlike in previous generations, there are no jobs for life. Retraining and upskilling will become a normal part of the employment landscape.
  • Support programs that develop job flexibility, even in unionized work settings, to help develop cooperative job sharing and flextime.

Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?

Nearly half of employees will work remotely at least some of the time. Thirty and 48 percent of employees work remotely pre- and post-pandemic, respectively, according to Gartner. This trend requires human resources leaders to identify new skills that enable effective remote work with greater digital dexterity, management styles to fit remote team needs, flexible work options for employees, and changes to performance management for remote setups and recruiting in new locations for new skills.

What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?

I don’t foresee changes as much as I forecast emphasis in increasing wages, liberalizing parental leave, and pushing harder for gender equality and workforce diversity.

Our A-Plus Apprentice program addresses workforce diversity using The Registered Apprenticeship program which is our student-centric venture that matches high school Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) students (18–21 years old) with appropriate employers for apprenticeships.

The A-Plus Apprentice program customizes curricula based on student skills with the assistance of school principals, Specialist Leaders of Education (SLE) teachers, job coaches, and other special needs staff using student Individual Education Plans (IEPs). Our first concentrations are in graphic design, digital marketing, e-commerce specialist, and cashier roles, with more to follow.

We leverage government resources and infrastructure by providing our program in school and not after school. Some school districts have been forced to cut teachers of certain subjects. We can fill that void in some areas.

The Boggs Center at Rutgers University partners with us to provide training for employers to help them understand hiring and employing people with disabilities.

Our instructors give 144 hours of related technical instruction, and apprentices work 2000 hours per year, guided by schoolteachers and an employer mentor in the school. After completing our program, each apprentice earns a designation from the Bureau of Apprenticeships, a federal agency.

The problem of unemployment and underemployment among autistic adults also has a huge economic cost. The annual cost of autism is predicted to be $461 billion in the US by 2025 according to Statista. The diagnosis rate in New Jersey continues to outpace the rest of the nation with 28 autistic preschoolers per 1,000 as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Primary caregivers, typically mothers, are called upon to serve as their children’s case managers and advocates, and on average, earn 56 percent less than mothers of children with no health limitations.

Only fifteen percent of those with autism have full-time jobs, while nine percent work part-time. Thus, there is a high unmet need for employment and suitable careers. And because there is no cure for autism, all these problems are lifelong.

State rules mandate that when students who have been attending specialized private schools turn 18, they must then return to their original public schools. Many students resist the change. The solution? With A-Plus Apprentice, students can remain in their familiar schools. Bonus: they receive individualized training in our earn-while-you-learn program.

Advocates for children with disabilities are cheering a 2017 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court involving an autistic student. In establishing more-ambitious academic standards for special education students, this represents a clear win for the modernization that I am promoting here and now.

Our A-Plus Apprentice program is extremely timely, arriving during an era of intense need to improve the lives of these students and their families. The good news is the universal support I’ve seen. As my marketing and communications collaborator, Joel Levin, says, “The A-Plus apprenticeship program is the wave of the present. I say that because all the ingredients for success are here now — and because of the degree of enthusiasm shown us by schools, school boards, educators, and parents for a program that costs them nothing and solves a huge problem. This high degree of agreement, involvement, and emotion is something rarely seen among these cohorts.”

It should also be noted that October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and that there is a week in November to celebrate apprenticeships.

What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employees to accept?

According to Gartner, the coronavirus pandemic adds to organizational complexity, straining design, culture, and value proposition.

There is a need for regional leaders to lead integration efforts for talent and other processes including performance management, reskilling and career development, and total rewards.

Prior to the pandemic, many organizational redesigns were focused on increasing efficiency whereas the pandemic shows the need for resilience.

Lean operations created limited flexibility during the pandemic. Organizational design includes roles, structures and processes around outcomes rather than tasks to increase responsiveness and flexibility.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the inadequate social safety net that many workers at all pay levels have. Is this something that you think should be addressed? In your opinion how should this be addressed?

Yes. I said earlier that wages, parental leave, gender equality and workforce diversity should be addressed by employers. Organizations can hire a chief well-being officer to advocate for pandemic-changed needs that include physical and mental well-being benefits. Employee experience should be expanded to account for family responsibilities.

Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

Some employees find work more humanizing in the crisis while others find it dehumanizing. Leaders need to develop emotional intelligence and soft skills to balance empathy and productivity.

Historically, major disruptions to the status quo in employment, particularly disruptions that result in fewer jobs, are temporary with new jobs replacing the jobs lost. Unfortunately, there has often been a gap between the job losses and the growth of new jobs. What do you think we can do to reduce the length of this gap?

While I understand the employers’ interest in reducing expenditure on wages, I do not believe that it is in their best long-term interest not to rehire.

Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Trends to Watch in the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

Helena van der Merwe is a cohort member of the New Jersey Future of Work Accelerator which started in October 2021.

“The New Jersey Future of Work Accelerator is a new program designed to support innovators whose ideas, products, and programs address the key challenges that workers are facing due to technological advancement,” said Joe DeLaTorre, who leads the project as a fellow at the New Jersey State Office of Innovation. “Through the Accelerator, innovators receive training, coaching, and support to pilot, implement, or scale their solutions to challenges of worker rights, worker safety, and lifelong learning in New Jersey. We are proud to be working with our partners at the RSA and The Workers Lab on this project to further cultivate an innovation ecosystem dedicated to improving the lives of New Jersey workers and their families.”

The five trends identified and shared here align with the Future of Work Task Force report and the work the state of New Jersey has already committed too.

  1. Workers will require a rapidly changing set of skills over the course of their careers. As new technologies proliferate through industries, many tasks currently performed by workers are no longer valuable to employers. Workers will need to learn new skills over the course of their careers to adapt. For example, in manufacturing, operating, programming, and maintaining digital equipment have become important job qualifications, displacing other skills made obsolete by robots and other automation. There is a need for new forms of skills training. Companies and governments will also need to provide more flexible financing options to facilitate training for workers, like Lifelong Learning Accounts.
  2. Technology will enable greater flexibility, autonomy, and worker voice. Hybrid work arrangements have proliferated throughout the workforce. Advancements in technology, like video conferencing and cloud technology, and the availability of broadband access made the move to remote work possible, a movement that was catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has given workers greater flexibility over the hours they work and where they live, as workers are no longer being bound by commute times. At the same time, remote work creates new pressures in terms of space, childcare, and worker engagement. Also, the benefits will not be available to all workers. For entire industries and occupations remote work is simply not possible. Similarly, those living in areas without access to broadband will find it difficult to access these new benefits. Gender inequalities may be exacerbated by hybrid models as well. Women are more likely to choose flexible work arrangements, and when telecommuting are more likely to have children present or need to perform housework than men. If in office presence is linked to performance, this could increase gender pay and promotion disparities, as men are more likely to prefer being in the office.
  3. The gig economy and other non-traditional work arrangements will continue to expand. While new technology creates flexibility and autonomy for some workers, the rise of the gig economy has also eroded the safety net for millions of workers. Workers in non-traditional work arrangements often don’t qualify for benefits, such as unemployment insurance, paid family leave, or medical benefits — leaving workers without critical support systems meant to mitigate economic shocks for families. To protect workers, Governments are ramping up enforcement against worker misclassification and supporting more flexible safety nets with more inclusive and portable benefits.
  4. Algorithmic decision-making will continue to play a larger role in our society. Artificial Intelligence presents opportunities to boost efficiency, profits, and reduce waste. But this technology is not without challenges, as algorithms, especially used in hiring, can hide and amplify biases that exacerbate existing inequalities and can embed discrimination. Responsible AI standards and protections need to be put in place to ensure that these tools offer fair and equitable access to all.
  5. The use of technology to track worker performance will continue to expand. Companies will collect more data on their workers and that raises privacy concerns. This technology can track workers keyboard and mouse usage, monitor employee emails and other workplace collaboration tools, and even collect audio and video of workers. While the data is intended to improve efficiency, it also poses a risk to workers’ privacy and potentially worker safety as a result of the pressure it creates on workers to work faster. Workers have raised significant privacy concerns about the increase of workplace surveillance, and these workers need to be given a voice in what data is collected about them on the job and, especially, in their own homes.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?

I like to say, “Aligning intuition with creative thinking is the most effective way to shift paradigms.”

Our A-Plus Apprentice program is an example of combining intuition and creativity to establish large change. The program is the first and only solution to help ASD students while in school with a simple, yet powerful solution for transforming education and improving the lives of those with ASD.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love the opportunity to meet Tom Cruise and his mom who is a special needs educator. Many ASD students show aptitude for the arts, so I can see Hollywood deriving benefits from hiring our students.

Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?

Twitter: @HelenaMerwe

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/APlusConsultingLLC/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/helenavandermerwe/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/aplusapprentice

https://www.linkedin.com/in/helena-van-der-merwe/

Google My business: https://business.google.com/edit/l/00994544174096846376

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMTO005vaP9_5bZIiGxVzdw?view_as=subscriber

Web sites: www.aplusapprentice.com www.a-plus-signs.com and www.spacevitae.com

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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