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The Age of ‘Octopus Talents’ Is Here

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The Age of ‘Octopus Talents’ Is Here

Source:Ming-Tang Huang

As the late management guru Peter Drucker once said, the tools we rely on for survival today could get in the way of growth tomorrow. Constantly enhancing one’s skills and taking on all kinds of roles, “hybrid talents” are the new stars of the workplace.

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The Age of ‘Octopus Talents’ Is Here

By Monique Ho
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 624 )

These four scenarios take place in Taipei, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Though occurring in different settings and situations, they send the same signals.

Scenario 1: Early last year, word spread of major layoffs at IBM. In the story that broke the news, The Wall Street Journal reported that in the midst of a transition to the Internet of Things (IoT) and Cloud services, IBM had laid off 20,000 people. Meanwhile, the company was reportedly frantically searching for new personnel to fill the vacancies. The professional know-how and experience that those laid off brought to the fore made IBM’s success over the past decade possible, yet somehow it was no longer current.

Scenario 2: Beitou, Taiwan. Medical students at National Yang-Ming University have two new required courses, information technology and data science. “Physicians must be equipped to sort through massive quantities of data to interpret the complex phenomena of life, and to have a dialogue with data science and information experts,” says Lung-sen Kao, vice president and dean of academic affairs at National Yang-Ming University.

Scenario 3: Working-age individuals wearing backpacks stream in and out of one floor of an office building located on Nanjing East Road in Taipei. This is the “campus” of ALPHA Camp, where the students span a broad range of ages, most of whom cannot be described as “young.” Some of them have full-time jobs, while some have resigned from their positions. Their professional expertise is decidedly “un-digital,” while their newly acquired skills are very much digital. Whether founding new ventures or returning to the workplace, their lives take a different path after graduating from here.

Scenario 4: A company office on one floor of an office building in London, England. The reception room is designed around a decommissioned subway car, with numerous classrooms behind it filled with students taking classes in data science, artificial intelligence and assorted other subjects. They left their jobs and reached into their pockets to come up with £8,000 and £10,000 (US$9,900-12,400) to enroll in 10- to 12-week immersive courses.

This is the London office of General Assembly, a skills training academy founded just six years ago in the United States with campuses in 20 cities and nearly 40,000 graduates worldwide to date.

How Large is the Gap between School and Workplace?

General Assembly (GA) founder Jake Schwartz, an honors graduate from Yale University, was headed for a bright future no matter which direction he took. But his reasons for founding this company would surely raise eyebrows among MBA graduates from top schools. In an interview with The Economist, Schwartz related that his degree from Yale conferred no real practical skills on him, and that he wasted even more time and money on a two-year MBA program. This got him thinking that the return-on-investment equation in education needed to be changed by bringing down the costs and providing the skills that employers desire.

GA’s curriculum development is close to the Zeitgeist, involving numerous in-depth discussions with employers about which skills are both desperately needed and in short supply.

Sensing the intense shift in the demands of today’s workplace, ALPHA Camp students are typically senior-level white collar workers that have quit their jobs or are leveling up their skills while holding down jobs.

The above four scenarios all point to one fact: Technology is changing too quickly, causing the already serious gap between industry and academia to grow even further. Mr. Kuo Jung Shen is the chairman of automobile parts and components maker Hota Industrial Manufacturing, which plans to establish an Industry 4.0 production facility in Chiayi. He laments that senior level management in IoT, Big Data, and Cloud management are difficult enough to find, let alone qualified personnel in Industry 4.0.

Then what sort of people does Industry 4.0 demand, and why have conventional school education and current vocational training been unable to foster such talent? According to Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) at this year’s World Economic Forum, in the past, one could undergo a systematic university education to learn a marketable skill, and work in that profession until retirement. Now, Schleicher says, this approach no longer works.

Multiple-trick Ponies

Change is happening, and “we must redesign our curriculum” to prepare people for a digitized world, asserted Henning Banthien, secretary general of Germany’s Plattform Industrie 4.0, in an exclusive interview with CommonWealth. Further, he underscored that “very important as well is the way we get educated during our entire lifetime. Training on the job, how you get qualified every day you work… relearning.”

It is never enough. Not because it is unprofessional; on the contrary, it could in fact be too specialized.

Last year, the University of Hohenheim in Germany conducted the first comprehensive wide-scale survey of Industry 4.0, in which businesses were asked to list what type of talent they were seeking. Researchers found that 90 percent of German enterprises surveyed complained that employees’ current skillsets were either outdated or too narrow, and that they could benefit greatly from the acquisition of a second professional skill.

Statistics produced by the survey clearly indicated that enterprises want employees to quickly acquire various new skills. Even more thought-provoking is that 42 percent of the enterprises surveyed indicated that the need for employees that spend an entire career immersed in one field continues to diminish.

Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based analytic software company specializing in job market analysis, found that the biggest demand in the U.S. employment market is not for experts, but for people with mixed skillsets across different fields. Burning Glass CEO Matt Sigelman calls them “hybrids”; we at CommonWealth like to call them “octopus talents.”

For instance, 49 percent of the highest-paying job vacancies in the United States, both in and out of high tech, call for programming skills.

“It makes sense to require marketing people to know algorithms,” stated Hannes Klöpper, founder of Iversity, a leading Europe-based MOOC, in an interview with CommonWealth. Still, neither formal educational institutions nor on-the-job professional training in corporations, are adept at training hybrid talent.

Multifaceted Talents Level up at Bootcamps

Ulrich Sendler, a pioneering force for Industry 4.0 and author of The Coming Fourth Industrial Revolution, told CommonWealth: “By the time (a student) is able to finish four years of university and two years in a Master’s program, the demands of technology and the workplace have already changed.”

Many companies across Europe and the United States, unable to find the talent they seek, are taking matters into their own hands and collaborating with MOOCs to formulate tailor-made curricula, replacing the conventional approach in which consulting firms, scholars and experts present classes at companies or workers are sent to schools for vocational training.

Even mechanics need to understand IT. Like Marines on land and sea, Industry 4.0 talents must be adept across different fields.

These curricula are divided into units known as modules, which are divided into courses, and further separated into units to enable people with such needs to receive intensive training within a short period. These are variously known as “nanodegrees” or “bootcamps.”

Recognized by tech giants like Google and Amazon, nanodegrees are gaining even more competitiveness over undergraduate diplomas at traditional four-year colleges.

Skills bootcamp training is considered the best way to bridge the gap between academia and industry as employment demands undergo rapid change. Further, it is an excellent model for satisfying the need for lifetime learning. A great deal of innovation comes from outside strict core industries, and the same goes for education. The nanodegree trend, which rose to meet swelling professional needs, is only beginning to impact established institutional education and corporate training.

Corporations go where the talent is. Instead of threatening and inducing enterprises to invest in job creation, politicians should encourage them go all-in to bring about educational reform.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman


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