A survey released Wednesday shows that some basic, “routine” work skills can be passed from generation to generation, but those proficiency “nudges” are gone by the time the workers of the future reach middle age. By then, nearly 70 percent of the skills are obsolete, and the gap can widen over time as newcomers build their own skills, according to a study from the Society for Human Resource Management.
Sarina Bowen, the president of the talent management firm that conducted the survey, says it’s clear that quickening the pace at which those skilled jobs exist in the work force makes a significant difference. “If you want to preserve those types of jobs, you need to be looking at this immediately,” she says.
Bowen believes that increasing the pace of innovation is key to the solution, saying that constantly changing industries make it challenging for traditional job holders. “How do we retain people and keep people in this country and not send them overseas?” she says.
However, the problem could be worse than the data shows. The report reveals that the skills that begin to disintegrate only when the workers of tomorrow are still in their 40s, and that early exit to the workforce has been helpful for the health and education of many Americans.
Marek Glantz, an economics professor at Arizona State University, says the problem is complicated by changes in technology in particular that are not reflected in the “routine” skill types covered in the survey. “The skills that were really good skills 30 years ago, they’re not good skills anymore,” he says.
The skills aren’t automatically redundant, but they simply have changed. It may sound paradoxical, but the problem may be there weren’t enough workers with the new skills when demand changed. “The problem is we are producing too few people who have the right skills for the jobs we have,” he says.
Glantz says to turn this around, experts need to come up with incentives for workers to transition into new skills. “With a competitive job market where everyone’s competition is pretty much everyone else, employers are going to need to pay a little bit more to attract them,” he says.
How the skills atrophy is also very dynamic. Forty years ago, so-called “batch labor” — cleaning rooms, assembling computers and performing other tasks at large plants — was the most common form of work in the U.S. Because of automation, this is now almost nonexistent. However, other types of work seem to be evolving as well, says Bowen.
“People with incredibly high levels of proficiency with new technology are gaining more market share than ever before,” she says. “We’re seeing new skills spread out to keep pace with the fast pace of change.”