Developing skills for the 21st century workplace

There’s no shortage of data telling a story around a skills mismatch between employers and the labour force. The last annual (2018) CBI/Pearson report on skills and education found that two-thirds of employers fear there will be a lack of sufficiently skilled people to fill vacancies. Macro factors like the UK’s ageing workforce and technological drivers like the rise of automation compound the issue, and bring the critical need to re-skill and re-train those already in work to the fore.

Employers of all shapes and sizes are grappling with this. No organisation can be successful without the appropriately skilled people they need to produce their products and deliver their services (or oversee those robots doing it…). People leaders have a huge role to play here, in everything from evolving recruitment processes, providing meaningful work experience opportunities to young people and developing cultures of continuous learning within their organisations.

We know that in a shifting world of work, uniquely human skills are becoming more important. Study after study from organisations such as the World Economic Forum, the OECD and Nesta shows these essential and eminently transferrable skills – communication, team working, creativity — are most highly prized by employers. Sometimes these skills are referred to as soft skills, but I personally dislike that term, as we all know that they are some of the hardest skills to find, develop and display personally. At an HR director dinner I recently hosted discussing this topic, one people director reflected that getting her leadership team to consistently display such skills is one of her toughest challenges.

One overarching issue in this space is a lack of a common language when discussing these essential skills, something that employers, education providers and individuals can refer back to. That’s why the CIPD is collaborating with a number of other organisations including the Careers and Enterprise Company and The Gatsby Foundation to form an Essential Skills Task Force. Its aim: to agree a universal framework for essential skills: one which is clear, measurable and authoritative.

We have recently convened two senior-level events around this important topic: the aforementioned HRD dinner in London and an HR leader event in Northern Ireland (NI). Our expert expert panel of speakers at the latter: the Department for the Economy’s Michael Gould, Gareth Hetherington, director of the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre (UUEPC), Northern Ireland Electricity Networks HR director Gordon Parkes and Lizzie Crowley, CIPD skills adviser. 

The CBI/Pearson report for NI found that almost three-quarters of employers in the region lack confidence they can fill highly skilled roles. The NI Skills Barometer, produced by UUEPC, finds a skills mismatch, with oversupply in certain areas like teaching and undersupply in others, namely STEM. It also calls out the need for a focus on employability and essential skills, and the need to provide highly varied routes into work, for example vocational training and apprenticeships.

Both events raised some wide ranging themes, which should give people professionals plenty of food for thought. They include: 

  • The importance of aligning all organisational skills development clearly to the business strategy and growth areas. At NIE Networks, for instance, the business focus is on all energy being carbon free by 2050, so skills development must support making this vision a reality. 
  • The need to address perceptions of vocational pathways and sector attractiveness among parents and young people. As Gareth Hertherington pointed out, parents see apprenticeships as “for other people’s kids”, and some sectors don’t have a skills shortage issue, they have a general attractiveness issue.
  • As technology increasing the possibilities for automation, people professionals need to take a leadership and influencing role in considering the impact on organisational and role design, and the ethical questions inherent in automating for efficiency. Anecdotal evidence suggests automation can improve job quality, but people need support in moving up the value chain. HR needs to be asking challenging questions of the business: where should we invest in new technology? What is the impact of doing so on people and society more widely? Just because we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean we should.
  • Skills development doesn’t stop when we leave the education system. We need to instil cultures of lifelong learning within our organisations. In a world of change, the ability to respond with learning agility will be critical to people remaining relevant and productive. 

Preparing young people and those already in the labour market for changing world of work means employers, educators and policymakers pulling together in the same direction. The Essential Skills Task Force aims to enable this, as do forums bringing those people leaders with the ability to make a difference in their organisations and communities. Please do get involved to ensure the workforce of today and tomorrow is equipped with the skills they need to thrive in the 21st century workplace.

Find out more

  • To get involved in HR leader activity in Northern Ireland, contact Avril Anderson on 
  • To find out more about HR leader activity at the CIPD more generally, contact Katie Jacobs on
  • Interested in the Essential Skills Task Force? Contact Lizzie Crowley on 


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