The ‘talentsumers’ Are Here

October 21, 2019

Bruce Morton is a Workforce Design and Talent Acquisition Expert. He is Author of Redesigning The Way Work Works.

Technology has reshaped the world of work to a great extent and more is coming for sure. Simultaneously, the workforce too has evolved in ways unforeseen. Employees are increasingly assuming the character of consumers, placing high expectations—purpose, development, fun, and so on—on their employers. And organizations can ill-afford to turn a blind eye.

Three events took place in the past decade that have led us to the current talent landscape: the financial crisis of 2007–08, the surge in digital technology, and a consumer-like approach to work. These tipping points abruptly changed the nature of the working relationship—how employers utilize and pay their workers. What began as a short-term solution to hiring freezes and shrinking bottom lines evolved into what looks like a new model with staying power. In much the same way that cash-strapped academic institutions in the previous century began relying more heavily on adjunct rather than tenured professors, many businesses were forced to look beyond permanent hires after the banking collapse. Enter the contingent worker…and cue the robots.

The seeds of free agency

Facts: the concept of a job for life is all but dead and unlikely to ever be revived. As the old expectations began to die out, workers who found themselves between jobs looked for ways to make ends meet. Stints at day labor and temporary gigs gave the otherwise unemployed a taste of a new career model. As long as staffing agencies provided such jobs, a worker could move among short-term engagements indefinitely. In the process, their network of prospective employers would continue to grow.

Next, the advent of the internet and its wider advertising net meant that those with expertise could strike out on their own. Scouring the ‘help wanted’ ads on Craigslist was one source for contract work. Setting up an inexpensive website allowed contractors to hang out their shingles and let the work come to them.

Employers were slower to latch on to this way of thinking. ‘Outsourcing’ was a dirty word in its younger years, considered an underhanded tactic employed only by the most cut-throat corporations. Then came the mortgage and banking crises. Once the economy tanked, the financial benefits of slashing traditional hiring costs could not be denied. Organizations that needed talent that they did not house themselves dipped into the contractor pool and found the water was just fine. Before you could say ‘adjunct professor’, tenured positions in companies were cut or put on hold, and contingent workers were brought in to do what needed to be done.

Now, contract talent represents a significant proportion of the workforce—and a growing proportion of staffing assignments. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, as of 2016, more than 30 percent of American workers were classified as ‘non-traditional’, meaning they were not formally employed by the organizations for which they worked. These ranks are projected to reach as much as 50 percent of all those employed in the private sector before long. We are seeing a similar pattern take shape in Europe and Asia.

The option of digital help

Much of what once seemed a far-off future in both Kubrick’s and Zemeckis’s Back to the Future films has entered the here and now. While flying cars still have a ways to go, the reality encountered by Marty and Doc is not so far removed from our own. Whether it is using a self-service grocery checkout or having a conversation with an automated phone system, we now routinely enjoy, and sometimes get annoyed with, machine-generated services that were once carried out by people. Breakthroughs in robotics, digital matrices, and machine learning have brought us to this point.

Once considered a death knell to labor, automation made many workers’ lives easier even as it prompted others to find new career paths.

The new technology holds all sorts of promise for consumers—flying cars included—but it may be even more significant to employers in the long run. While some workers may be supplanted by machines, the changes will likely generate new work opportunities. This has been true since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Once considered a death knell to labor, automation made many workers’ lives easier even as it prompted others to find new career paths. Fear of change, however, obscured the potential gains that mechanization might bring. These apprehensions led to sabotage, labor strikes, and violent standoffs between workers and management around the world, such as the Luddite movement in the nineteenth-century textile factories of Great Britain and the early twentieth-century woolen mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Illustration by Nirali Desai

We are seeing echoes of these fears as the application of AI invades certain job sectors, including manufacturing and customer service. But mechanization of those types of jobs has been underway for quite some time, and the world of work has still survived. It may fall to employers to convince the public that computers and robots enhanced by machine learning are more beneficial than detrimental. Defining the classes of existing technology might help. The digital worker of the future (which is now, by the way) may be driven by one or more types of ‘thinking’.

The corporate earnings previews that appear on Forbes’s website, for instance, are already being generated by algorithms without human involvement. We will see further results in things like self-driving vehicles and other innovations that are still to come. Finally, robotic process automation is software that can be easily programmed to do basic tasks across applications, just as human workers do. It is designed to reduce human employees’ burden of simple, repetitive, tasks.

So, what does this mean to business leaders and HR folks looking to build the ideal flexible team? Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, in their book, The Second Machine Age, forecast that machines may take over as much as 50 percent of certain jobs within the next fifteen years. I believe that companies must consider this development a welcome addition to their competitive arsenal rather than a draw-down of expertise.

As old staff positions disappear and new ones replace them, competition for talented people to fill companies’ needs will no doubt grow more intense, if the current global shortage of in-demand skills persists.

But I cannot overstate the importance of businesses reaching a critical knowledge mass on this subject as quickly as possible as the integration of digital workers into the larger employee framework will affect all businesses— those that use them, and those that do not. Professionals in HR and procurement will find themselves hiring and managing smaller human staffs and larger digital ones.

The working people who remain will have different values, expectations, and skill sets. As old staff positions disappear and new ones replace them, competition for talented people to fill companies’ needs will no doubt grow more intense, if the current global shortage of in-demand skills persists.

Talentsumers are here to stay

This leads us back to the human workforce. For the foreseeable future, we will likely fashion our teams from a combination of digital and human employees, on a combined contingent and ‘permanent’ basis—or whatever permanence morphs into over time. Among the human talent pool, the majority of whom these days are now members of Generation Y, demographics and values are changing. To move with that curve, management needs a new lens through which to view these more demanding workers, those that expect a consumer experience in their work life—and new policies that address their reality.

Before you discount the value of accommodating workers’ new attitudes toward work, remember that we no longer have the luxury of an ‘employer’s market’. The candidate is now well and truly in the driver’s seat, and we had better hand them the keys.

Let us consider more deeply why these things may have grown in importance for up-and-coming generations. Consider the world they will inhabit. Barring a cataclysm, the human population will continue to grow, and competition for resources and the work that provides them will as well. Throw the effects of climate change into the mix, and they will see even more competition for organic resources. The rural-to-urban trend will probably leave fewer jobs in outlying areas and create more in cities, where dense populations will vie for them, yet employers still may not be able to fully staff up from local pools. Travel or remote work will increase. And since the employment scene will be volatile, job stability will degrade even further from the thirty-years-and-a-gold-watch standard than it already has.

Much of appealing to the talentsumer mentality is connected with cultural improvement. So is the endeavor of optimizing our workforces and work processes.

In answer, today’s talentsumers want to be able to appeal to a variety of employers in more than one niche. So, they seek to associate with companies that provide continuing education, training, and support for the work they are doing-real opportunities to push themselves and develop new skills and interests. Given the future of sixty-plus years in the workplace these younger generations face, I do not blame them!

Much of appealing to the talentsumer mentality is connected with cultural improvement. So is the endeavor of optimizing our workforces and work processes. We should be looking to revolutionize all of this now, so that we do not fall behind the steady march of technology and changing demographics and values. A vast break with the past is here, whether we like it or not.

 

The article is based on the book Redesigning the Way Work Works: Strong Opinion and Advice from 40 Years in the Business.