Robot assembly line

The changing nature of employment

The changing nature of employment in the digital age

The changing nature of employment

Tim Gillis | Leadership,

In my last article, I wrote about the changing nature of employment in an increasingly digital age. I’d like to offer up two personal examples of the “digital score” of a job rising. The first one is for fun. My doorknob to the garage broke this year, and I wanted to consider a “smart door knob,” something I could lock or unlock from afar using an app. So I called the locksmith, and they said “we’ll send someone to see you; it’ll be $99 for the house visit, and the technician will advise you on the capabilities.” The only problem when the technician arrived is that he said, “I don’t really know much about those.” Digital score has gone up; but not all have kept up.

The second example is pertinent. This year marked my 10th year as Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University. This year, to my class of 20 multinational students pursuing a Master of Laws in Taxation, I told them quite simply that they should no longer plan to practice tax law without having built up their knowledge base around technology. I could go on at length about why that is, but suffice it to say this for now: I believe Tax Policy in the remainder of the 21st Century will be fundamentally impacted and possibly decided by answering this question: “What taxes are easiest to collect and administer using technology?” 

Already, we favor transaction taxes (taxes on consumption) much more now than we did 50 years ago. It’s already started: the move to technology-based tax policy. Yet it seems that 90% of tax legal education is focused on what produces only about 6% of tax receipts around the world. Hmmmm. 

The same mismatch has been occurring in B-schools. From Helen Barrett, the Work & Careers Editor of the FT, “Business schools are great at teaching finance, but dismal at teaching fintech.” Every year, FT asks graduates from the global top 100 MBA programs which subjects they thought their school taught well and badly. Fintech languished in 16th place out of 18 subject categories. 

Why? Well, as demonstrated by the Gartner Hype Cycle charts that I referenced in my first post of this series, because everything changes so very fast. “Saying you are an expert on fintech is like saying you’re an expert on the whole world,” says Professor Matt Rhodes-Kropf, currently at MIT Sloan. David Yermack of NYU Stern suggests “business schools don’t understand fintech, so they steer clear of it.”

As the Financial Times recently reported, Yermack started a class on blockchain three years ago. There were 30 students then. 100 students last year. 200-300 will take the class this year. It was the “right place and the right time,” as legacy banks on Wall Street dip their toe in the water to experiment in the space with new blockchain applications. I think that is precisely how the world of work and higher ed will need to work together in this era.

A year ago, I wrote an article published in the Washington Post, where I stated that although addressing income inequality issues is important, addressing the complicated problem of short- and long-term employment in the age of automation is a prerequisite. Policy development for the first half of the 21st Century will be complicated, requiring innovative thinking and a stronger alliance among business, government and education. A recipe for success should include at least four imperatives:

1. Reshaping the employment proposition in light of technological progress;

2. Reframing the purpose, nobility and grandeur of work qua work, including all types of labor;

3. Addressing the high costs of education and engaging students differently to fit the adaptability and productivity needs of the new economy; and

4. Inviting businesses and capital markets to embrace social responsibility goals that include, among other things, employment. 

I’m really happy to report on how we see these things happening. Just like with the NYU blockchain program that Professor Yermack teaches, we at KPMG have aligned now with nine universities to create fresh new programs that train students to do what business needs them to do when they emerge from schools today. In partnership with Villanova, Ohio State, USC (California), Arizona State, UGA, Missouri, Ole Miss, Baylor and Virginia Tech, we have launched fresh new D&A and Technology programs for finance and accounting majors. Anecdotally, they must be popular. Although I’m not personally connected to those programs, students at those schools have contacted me through LinkedIn to see if they could somehow get into the programs. I love that! Both Birkbeck University of London and Central Saint Martins, an art school, have replaced case-study learning with consulting projects backed by partner companies to encourage students to solve real-life, real-time business problems. Similarly, some British schools have been adapting their MBA courses to qualify under the “apprenticeship” levy – this is a levy that requires UK-based companies with compensation of more than £3 million pounds sterling to put aside the equivalent of 0.5 percent of the total for staff training. I love this “levy” because it recognizes the critical importance of lifelong learning. 

That’s also why I’m glad that lifetime learning tax credits somehow miraculously survived tax reform in the US two months ago. My own 26-year old son, who attended this event with me last year, was an active duty US Marine at this time last year. He’s now a Marine reservist, in a Master’s program at Tufts University, funded in part by the GI bill and also helped along by tax credits for lifelong learning. Yes, my 26-year old Marine son will need to be adaptable for this world of work; and higher education is essential for his development.

Coming out of Davos, the World Economic Forum published a whitepaper entitled Towards a Reskilling Revolution. I won’t get into the details here, but I do note that one of the paper’s conclusions is similar to what I suggested in my letter to the Post:

“To make reskilling real, and prepare for accelerated structural change of the labor market, a wide range of stakeholders – governments, employers, individuals, educational institutions and labor unions – will need to come together, collaborate and pool their resources more than ever before.”

As they prepare for the future, and as we prepare young people for the future, we need to remember that they will need to stand out in interviews and in the workplace, and that this will require far more than just technical knowledge. They will need to show how they can be adaptable in a world of change. As stated recently by Safiya Miller, Microsoft’s head of global talent acquisition, they will need to show how they can “create clarity, generate energy and deliver success.”

In the modern context of disruptive change, that energy to tackle transformation and that ability to find clarity within uncertainty will be differentiating, not only for young professionals and their organizations, but for all of us. The digital revolution is not simply about organizational dynamics and the disruption of business models. The digital revolution is about individual flexibility, adaptability and creativity. We should help the next generation of students determine how to embrace the digital revolution, not hide from it. And we can start by setting the example ourselves. Courage, everyone!