Why skills – not degrees – will shape the future of work

Credit: Unsplash

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Briony Harris, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • The nature of work and careers is changing fast – and in the future, the right skills will be prized over academic qualifications alone.
  • The COVID-19 slowdown offers employers an opportunity to reshape their hiring practices around this shifting paradigm.
  • How well companies can change their mindset will help define their future performance.

For generations, we have spent the first third of our lives acquiring the college degrees we need to find jobs. These degrees are the stamps on our professional passports that paved the way for the remaining two-thirds of our journey. This implies that the nature of our work, along with the skills and knowledge required to execute it, remains unchanged for a lifetime – which of course is no longer true. While our parents likely held one job for life, most of us have had several – and not just jobs but careers, too. Our children can expect to have many jobs and careers through their professional lives – perhaps even at the same time, with the maturing of the gig economy.

Clearly, the future of work will not be about college degrees; it will be about job skills. Now is our opportunity to steer those without college degrees toward successful careers and increase diversity amongst our workforce.

According to the World Economic Forum, more than 1 billion jobs, almost one-third of all jobs worldwide, are likely to be transformed by technology in the next decade. We are already seeing this happen. Think of the service staff at your favourite restaurant taking your order on a tablet that is connected to a central order-processing system back in the kitchen. The tablet must work without glitches to keep the restaurant running smoothly. Think of the apps you use to shop, track orders and simply stay informed. The store needs to keep them up and running at all hours, day after day, all year round. And because every one of these stores collects and maintains customer data that they study for trends – they need data analysts. They must also secure this data, which means they must therefore run cybersecurity operations.

In these and other similar situations, people are the organizing force making sure technology works the way we want it to. This means an unprecedented and rapid rise in new kinds of digital jobs. According to the Forum’s Jobs of Tomorrow report, there will be a rapid influx of roles at the forefront of the data and AI economy, as well as new roles in engineering, cloud computing and product development. These jobs need talent with relevant skills, and importantly these skills can be learnt even by those without college degrees.

The COVID-19 downturn gives us ample reason to act at scale, and act now. While the outbreak has been unsparing in its impact, we’ve seen a correlation between jobless rates and education level. For example, in the US, the decrease in employment from February to May ranged from 6% among workers with a bachelor’s degree or above to 21% among workers without a high school diploma (see figure below). Workers with a college degree or higher education are also much more likely to have the option to telework compared with high school graduates who did not go to college.

Image: Pew Research Center

However, if we shift our focus from degrees to skills, we’ll enable a bigger workforce that represents the diversity of our populations, and will help close the all too familiar opportunity and employment gaps. This will mean transitioning to always-on skills-based education and employment infrastructure that embraces not just credentials and certification but fitness-for-job and employment as outcomes.

In recent years, several companies – including EY, Google and IBM – have embraced this kind of thinking and have increased hiring from alternate talent pools. Several more are investing in continuous learning for the workforce.

Others, like Infosys, following COVID-19, have brought together a consortium of partners on a free, online platform, to provide job training and apprenticeship opportunities for job-seekers and to connect them with employers offering them new work streams and career pathways.

Interestingly, the future of work will not only be about hard skills; it will be about holistic job skills. When it comes to skills, employers look for more than just task-oriented or technical skills. Companies want people with an eye for detail, creative problem-solving skills, a collaborative mindset and an ability to deal with ambiguity and complexity. These too are skills that can be learnt, often through apprenticeship programmes. The Forum’s Jobs of Tomorrow report, in fact, found that emerging professions reflect the continuing importance of human interaction in the new economy, giving rise to greater demand for roles at the forefront of people and culture.

Image: World Economic Forum, Jobs of Tomorrow report

As lines blur between conventional business roles and technology functions, there is a coming together of digital and human tasks best tackled by people with a broader, more holistic mindset. Traditionally, we have seen this pan out in the context of talent with liberal arts backgrounds. Often viewed as generalists, compared to hires with technical or STEM backgrounds, their breadth of exposure often gives them a distinct advantage. Those qualified in the liberal arts are also attuned to learning many new and disparate topics – another plus in an age that demands lifelong learning.

Every business leader will agree that finding not only the right people, but people with the right skills and mindset, is a serious challenge for enterprise. Using a four-year degree as a proxy for employability means relying on talent with potentially redundant skills rather than lifelong learners with ever-relevant skills. It hurts us all, too – because our current over-reliance on college degrees further alienates already vulnerable job-seekers.

The amount of work we put into changing our mindset around talent and approach to hiring today will determine how far we are going to get together.

Disclaimer: This publication contains information in summary form and is therefore intended for general guidance only. It is not intended to be a substitute for detailed research or the exercise of professional judgment. Member firms of the global EY organization cannot accept responsibility for loss to any person relying on this article.

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