How soft and hard professional skills could develop – and change – after the COVID-19 era

The topic of a long-term foresight, regarding the present and the proximal future of the so-called professional soft and hard skills turns out to be a complex one. When is time to make a specific analysis in these terms, and if we want to achieve a sharp picture in these terms, we cannot skip a needed face-to-face with the particular social and political system of reference. We should also tackle some paradigms  – now in trend – coming from mixed analysis approaches, being attracted by the well-known and evergreen appeal of Murphy’s law.

Today’s Europe faces several challenges. One of them concerns education as the main pillar for future employment. In this context, we have European regions that are currently defined by high youth unemployment (think on South-Est regions) where a large number of highly educated, as well as poorly trained on the job workers lack the chance to find proper employment. The financial crisis experienced in the past, knocking again on the door, is not the unique responsible.

The national education system in Europe is out-dated and fatigue to meet the needs of a global labor market. We have a problem of compatibility.

On the other hand, we’re dealing with a further phenomenon, which at first glance seems implausible in light of the unemployment rate, namely the skills shortage or the inability to provide an adequate workforce. Not every sector is affected, but the professions experiencing contact with fast-changing technologies (think on digital solutions) such as MINT related and the ones in the health and care sector are the ones who mainly face the impact.

If we look more closely, it is not that difficult to notice that our higher unemployment rates and new demand for skills are two sides of one medal, with common denominators. Partial and inadequate education and mandatory preparation to address the market increasing requests are a matter of fact. Moreover, the option to even create and stay in a variable (hybrid) career paths requiring entrepreneurial mindsets and higher flexibility to sustain ourselves as self-employed with a stable income sounds like a utopia.

In this scenario, some human activities are more likely than others to be included in some medium-term work forecast reports. Despite some changes linked to some “environmental” factors, paradigms of a standard “basic” training are still able to maintain a certain degree of predictability. This statement reflects the truth that sees our labour market as a social institution created centuries ago and now immersed in a dense network of rules, customs and conventions. However, this “old fashioned” and “safe” structure is not anymore granting the stability and the reference standards that yesterday were a matter of appraisal.

So, what should we do?

First of all, we have to accept the fact that adapting the skills and level of employment of our workers to the profound changes that we are now experiencing with this new and unexpected forms of complex crisis, is a process that will take time to be fully deployed in its assumptions.

The act to make more general assertions about the question concerning our future and expected developments of the professional skills required in our changing world is for us an open and concrete chance. We’ll probably require some more flexibility in terms of hybrid learning programs referring not just to the academic or professional path but also the immediately previous one, during high school. It is here that skills as creativity, problem-solving, argumentation and process design can be built and strengthened by teachers. The same teachers that, on their turn, would very much benefit from programs seeing the active participation of experts in new professional paths and facilitators able to say something on the scenarios youth generations will face soon, during their weekly working shifts. When technology is running faster than ever, it seems that some “enriched” and hybrid educational programs should, as well, looking forward to participating in the race emulating the same training program.

We have a nice sample of experts and technologists helping us to make general forecasts on the medium run for the scenarios that would transform, thanks to opportunities granted by new technologies requiring therefore new forms of cooperation from new professions. On the other hand, what is true now is still difficult to be thought om the long run, because of some silent background noise.

A vast literature presents us with a change in the demand for professional skills, within the current technological progress at a social and geopolitical level. A change observed over the last 25 years as a product of complementary factors. Technological progress increases the demand for skills close to some paradigms of social behaviour and innovation which, in turn, require social investment. This is a work that needs to be defined on the upper levels of our social order, where politics, education and industry chambers need to establishing new requirements in terms of programs for employment.

Following these premises, I am not very surprised to have read that, since 1980, professions with high analytical skills but minimal social skills have now reached their terminal. We still live in an era where being social, and knowing its means is a matter of mandatory mastership. I know that if we consider some current societal anomalies happening now in many parts of the world on an ideological level, is strange to consider our reason as a competent supercomputer enabling us to make rational decisions. We tended to trust in its functioning and performance as the result of some complex and diversified dynamics but today we also know that using the same analogy, its power consumption must be checked regularly.

It is interesting to note that some models based on paradigmatic human cognitive responses, our general reference when we talk about machine learning, present also some irrational aspects and practices that can develop, afterwards, in diffused and imitable processes. I’m referring in particular to the ones that took an “evolutionary” advantage when they turn into adaptive responses to the dilemmas of supremacy during human social interactions. Of course, they must be supported by a general community approval, even if that does not mean that these thoughts are logically guided. Still, some responses manage to become successful memes through generations and cultures as carriers of symbolic meaning.

Some of our unique social cognitive skills led us to become the first opportunists in a society driven and designed by the (un)written law that, in a dispute, the order is granted by the stronger in terms of “mind” strengths.  When put in front of a challenge and difficult mediation, we tend to find a way to justify ourselves, our actions, strength and point of view. We’re planning and (re)acting in response, working on different ways and techniques of influencing the situation and others. This match and behaviour are also motivating us to give the best part of ourselves in a head-to-head match, sharping our mental performances and aiming to reach also some (in)direct cognitive power. A scenario that characterizes even some noble professions. Probably this competence would continue to belong to the human’s sphere of action.

The common thread between automation and a changing labour market

The advent of fully automated machines, industrial robots, intelligent algorithms for accurate predictions, big data and the Internet of Things gave rise to a new, expected, excitement regarding a concrete possibility to make previsions analysing the environment, while on the other hand, we have new forms of anxiety and fear arose from the masses.

I’m referring to the ones that match with machines performance the loss of jobs in some particular industries. The thought that humans still pertains to the specie who created these machines and have in their hands their “life” and developments seems to give rise to new forms of “racist” response: the one towards steel skin covers and beautiful software architectures.  Some professionals categories are immune to these thoughts and temptation as they would not be touched by machines threats. These could be the higher-skilled one, the ones who need to work mainly with people needs and wants, the ones who design, build and test machines both at the software and hardware level, the ones in the upper social spheres, and many others I would say. Therefore, it seems that the percentage of who is in worries regarding this aspect is minimal, mainly matching with technicians with a low average of specialization.

These people are generally the professional category who is afraid of the adoption of fully automated machines in the company they’re working in. Their current set of skills struggles to keep up with changing demand, in terms of abilities, times and production lines. If they are afraid of machines this is mainly due by a first response, dictated by partial knowledge of the combined possibilities granted by a growing field of automation.

Reading something about some behavioural responses towards the adoption of machines in a pure original human domain, we’re not far from recognizing that some of the fears experienced and faced by part of our society have already been expressed in the past. The tumultuous drop down in terms of society happened during the Industrial Revolution in the second half of the thirties, preparing the ground for the Second World War and the period immediately following is just counterevidence of that. Never-ending forms of demonstrations that led to social unrest and riots of different kinds, brought us – nevertheless – to directly adopting new types of technology. But not everyone remembers the past. The story we are experiencing nowadays cannot determine whether this time the reaction will be different. Even if we are in front of marvellous and useful creations conceived by human genius.

It sounds like an eternal recurrence, using Friedrich Nietzsche’s words.

We have to think that the first generations of machines were rather limited. Their areas of expertise ranged from simple and repetitive manual routines and if we want “cognitive” in the sense of generating an effective but predictable and defined response. Nowadays, the technology at our disposal (if we go beyond a common base) has almost nothing to do with its ancestors. Automatic driving of aeroplanes, trucks and cars, accurate word processing based on a defined set of initial data, precision medical diagnostics able to compare big data in simultaneous and more than reliable h24 images surveillance services are just part of what can come to mind. It is not that difficult to go on, filling out this long and variegated list.

Another aspect that must be considered is that despite some mediatic and academic attention has been dedicated to sharp the topic of how and if professions would be affected by new automated technologies, we still face a limit. This is one of the research studies available, capable of indicating which professions are fully potentially automatable, drawing a clear picture of what we can expect in 10, 20, 50 years. As I have already mentioned, the transition to the emergence of an automated technology capable of determining a change x in the sphere of the economy and professions does not mean that it will be adopted immediately. A beautiful and rational tech solution is not for everyone a love at a first sight, and even if it was, adopting it could last decades. A process that is not immune from pauses, unexpected changes and all sorts of kind of losses. We’ve here something in common with what could go on in our social systems, in terms of living beings’ adopting procedures.

New trends that could appear from current waves of Coronavirus

In some countries, the prospects for young technicians and specialists coming from an old formation for the job in the manufacturing sector were even before the advent of Coronavirus not encouraging. In recent months, to face new waves of demands for certain basic and mass goods, such as the production of disposable masks, disinfectants and virucides of all kinds and size, toilet paper, basic and long-lasting food, it is not a surprise that some industries recurred to automate part of their basic supply chain. Today automation is an answer so specific production assets that need to strengthen themselves to future pandemics and global crises side effects.

in this time of social distancing, many companies have to deal with new flexible solutions, capable of being customized according to unexpected changes and aiming to offer a response to even new requests of the food and retail industrial chains, granting the survival of needed massive production.

Perhaps this is also why today many companies are reflecting on the real possibility of letting hybrid machines and robots do some heavy routine work.

These solutions, increasingly performing and precise, become the objects of desire when a priority is to offer a steady response despite time constraints and unpredictability. You know already that before these challenging Covid-19 waves, people needed to deal with the retirement age of workers and technicians in the assembly. Fewer recruits are now willing to sacrifice their golden years to a safe-pay job, with more or less fixed hours with one of the lowest sex-appealing ever imagined.

We can therefore think about another hot spot: today, well-educated workers aspire to a competitive job, in line with what has been studied and perhaps even well paid. The new “academic” dream, after the well-known American one.

This scenario creates an interesting demand for substitutes, capable of offering the same level of efficiency as about x million workers worldwide. Besides, for those who have a large company, it is now possible to also request state incentives to automate part of the production. What was possible to consider science fiction some time ago and that was expected to happen in 5 or 7 years could be expected even for next year, 2021 where the economic recovery will have to demonstrate its sprint timing thanks to a hybrid machines fleet.

In countries where robotics has seen progress and impressive growth since the post-war period (think about what happened in Japan), people are more used to accept machines when is time to talk about a set of basics services made for a certain community demand. People walking on the street are not surprised to see human-looking bartenders behind a case, impeccable in their outfit, tireless and smiling when they give us a nice vanilla ice cream or hot coffee. Their work is precise per second, hygienic and above all automatic. Despite what could happen in the city in terms of environmental changes, the robots will always be there behind the case, waiting for commands with a big and calm smile. Ready to serve us when we can spend some available free time for a sweet routine.

Diverse requests related to Coronavirus managed – just in a few months – to trigger new global trends in an economy that presents different plasticity in terms of supply and demand. We are facing a historic phase that is unprecedented! The pandemic we are now experiencing is accelerating and modifying a technological shock that had been going on for more than a decade.

If world leaders are unable to notice the new trends, then today’s workers and our generation Z must are called to look beyond and around themselves towards possible allies in the sphere of automation. In a period of complete uncertainty, we can be sure of one thing: we are facing a new scenario which requires us. We need to find a way to quickly shape and create a production line immune to viruses and environmental unpredictability. We must establish the set of good practices aiming to integrate into old scenarios, new forms of interaction. New trends that maintain a direct match with what we were previously calling problem-solving, hands-on mentality, creativity, critical thinking, data analysis and data harvesting.

We live in an era where technological developments are opening up interesting scenarios. We are fortunate to be able to closely observe a landscape where both robots and supercomputers manage to carry out automation of processes, requiring a certain cognitive ability. Although different types of robots have taken hold in the market, what varies most, in addition to the type and scope of the activity to be automated is the long-term impact on workers. It is therefore expected, to have new opportunities for professional growth and wage, in comparison with what, decades ago, our parents and friends of different generations faced not knowing how to respond.

Committed to understanding how to interpret and juggle among such futuristic macro trends, dealing with the uncertainty that comes with(in) it, we will also have to conquer our place as (pro)active protagonists, where we indicate to the machines how to move, what and how to do to simplify our routines in the workplace and the previously protected sphere of the private.

Policies must continue to help us in this program, devoting investments in skills that could make it possible, once again, to adapt to the new structural changes expected on the long run. An assignment that includes all sort of information that could not be missed: the request to develop new digital skills getting more in touch with the technology in front of us, experimenting with and thanks to it and allowing ourself a new range of pleasures in its management, cooperating tightly.


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