The saying that every company is now a technology company, in that every organization needs digital talent, has become a cliché among contemporary management gurus. Less often discussed, however, is the need for employees in roles that are not explicitly technical to also develop a level of technological expertise. While engineering, cloud computing, and cybersecurity skills are highly coveted, simply having the ability to work with and understand enterprise technology is almost as valuable, given that technology appears destined to transform nearly every role in the organization—if it hasn’t already.
In LinkedIn’s most recent survey, the most in-demand skills for 2018 are predominantly technical, 57 percent of the leaders surveyed said soft skills like leadership, communication, and strategic thinking were more important than hard skills. LinkedIn’s list of this year’s most promising jobs illustrate that point, as several among the top ten—Engagement Lead, Customer Success Manager, Sales Director, Program and Product Manager, and Enterprise Account Manager—are roles that require those soft skills as well as a familiarity with technology. Likewise, tech-specific roles like data scientist and DevOps engineer were high up on Glassdoor’s list of the best jobs in the US this year, but managerial and business operations roles also made up a large portion of the top 50.
In other words, technical specialists may be some of the hottest talent on the market, but it takes an army to enable that talent to generate business value—whether by interpreting data, bringing technologies to market, keeping a project on course, servicing clients, or finding new ones. All of these employees now require some digital skills, but not the same skills software engineers and data analysts need.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai made a similar argument in an op-ed published at NBC News last week, noting that “the focus on code has left a potentially bigger opportunity largely unexplored.” Pichai points to a recent Brookings Institution report finding that jobs requiring “medium-digital” skills had grown to nearly half of all available jobs in 2016:
There are two areas that are relevant here. The first is around basic digital skills training. An office admin, for example, now needs to use online programs to run budgets, scheduling, accounting and more. While digital technology should be empowering people, it can often alienate them from their own jobs. […] Second, we have a huge opportunity to rethink training for jobs that are core to the digital economy, but that don’t require coding.
Pichai’s op-ed came on the heels of an announcement that Google will be financing IT support training via Coursera for 10,000 students. He sees this type of training as part of the solution to enabling all types of workers to upskill for these digital-adjacent roles:
You can imagine this lightweight, focused model being applied to other tech-related jobs of the future: robust certification programs for project management, delivery fleet operation, and other jobs no one can imagine today, but that will be obvious — and ubiquitous — in five years’ time.
Indeed, this trend is already happening. In November, Salesforce released its internal tech training platform to the public, opening up a program that has enabled its employees to make major career shifts, such as a recruiter becoming an engineer, or a sales trainer becoming a product marketer. Facebook and Apple are starting up and expanding tech training programs in Europe. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak created Woz U, “a world-class digital institute to help fill the employment gap for high-paying technology jobs across the US.” Coursera’s co-founder launched a school specifically for AI. Oracle welcomed a charter school to operate on its campus, and even built a brand new building for it.
In a feature at Wired last month, Jon Marcus looked at how other employers are taking matters into their own hands, in a similar fashion to Google’s IT support program. Microsoft, for example, helped design a data analytics program at Eastern Washington University, Cognizant Solutions launched a tech training program in New York in partnership with Per Scholas, and many employers are partnering with edX to do the same. As these micro-credentials become more widely accepted and begin to have a positive impact on job displacement and talent gaps, their popularity and investment should continue to rise.
A promising aspect of this development is that companies are partnering with educational institutions to develop curricula and support these programs financially. While there is potential for conflicts of interest in such partnerships, the benefits outweigh the risks, as students who invest their time and money in learning new skills can be more confident that those skills will help them get jobs.
Amid fears of automation causing massive disruptions to the job market in the coming years, employers need to be leading the charge in developing digital skills within their organizations, while also being as transparent as possible with employees and candidates about which skills they value. Judging from what the leading companies in the tech sector are doing, closing the digital skills gap will often entail developing internal training programs, refining them, and then eventually making them publicly available in a scalable format.