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Filling the Skills Gap in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution takes hold, driven by rapid advancements in artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies, there is ever more talk about a growing “skills gap.” According to the World Economic Forum, 35% of the skills demanded for jobs across industries will change by 2020.

The shortage of IT talent is particularly pronounced. The Manpower Group’s 2016/2017 Talent Shortage Survey highlighted nearly 600,000 IT openings in the U.S. alone. There is little chance of this problem going away on its own, and the skills gaps is likely to widen unless steps are taken to adapt the workforce amidst the rapid pace of change.

We spoke with Jonathan Reichental, CIO of the city of Palo Alto, about the genesis of the skills gap and the steps he believes we must take to close it.

Q. Why do you believe that we’re facing a skills gap in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

One of the things you have to recognize is the degree to which our societies are changing — the degree to which manual, repetitive work has been automated over the last 50 or so years.

The continuing automation of society means human beings have increasingly focused on “higher-level” work.

Go back 100 years and a huge proportion of our society is either working on a farm or working in a factory. Hardly anyone works on farms any more—we have machines that do the work humans used to do. Our factories are massively automated with mass production technologies.

So as we’ve moved through the First Industrial Revolution all the way into this Fourth Industrial Revolution and the information economy, the skills people require are different.

And yes, as a developed nation, we’ve moved at pace to adapt. But we’ve still not been able to keep up with the pace of change. So what happens is that you have a proportion of the population that is wedded to older, less valuable work. And then you get this new generation of internet natives and recent graduates who are totally comfortable in this new digitally led world.

So, why are we struggling today with a skills gap? Because we haven’t shifted quickly enough into the Fourth Industrial Revolution—a revolution defined by more skills-based, more right brain-based creative work. That requires significant societal shifts. Right now, we’re probably in the middle of that shift.

And we may not have sufficient facilities to educate everybody such that they learn the skills that this Fourth Industrial Revolution demands. Two areas where there is now a huge demand for skills are cybersecurity and data science. In neither of those areas are universities or professional organizations training enough people. We do not have sufficient talent coming through to fill our needs.

It’s not as if the end is in sight. These new technologies are emerging at an ever-faster rate—AI, machine learning, blockchain. Years ago, when a technology with the level of impact of AI came along, you could build a workforce over a few years. Now, technologies emerge so quickly that it’s becoming difficult to educate people quickly enough. This isn’t getting any easier; it’s getting more complex.

Q. In your role of CIO of the city of Palo Alto, how are you working to bridge this skills gap?

Bridging the skills gap is all about increasing capacity to solve problems by bringing in groups who previously would not have been able to contribute.

In the past, when we think of the sort of problems that cities and communities face, city hall has been the ‘owner’ of the solution. Transportation challenges, for example. The assumption was that city hall would take care of it. But what has happened over the last few decades is that it has become clear that city hall simply doesn’t have the capacity to keep up with the increasing expectations of the communities they serve.

This old model of city hall takes care of everything, that you pay your taxes and you’re good to go—in reality, that came to an end a while ago. There has to be co-creation now. In the world of local government, that means we bring more groups to the table to help solve problems faced by our communities. We co-create solutions between city hall, the private sector, academia, activists, and other members of the community.

So what does that look like? Let’s go back to the transportation challenges example. In the past, we would expect government to provide leadership and management of transportation challenges in a city like Palo Alto.

But now, if we give the right person the right data, we can encourage them to solve these problems in partnership with us. If you’re a citizen and you have some coding skills, you don’t need to wait for city hall. You can create apps to solve problems yourself. There is an increasing appetite for citizens to participate like that.

Some of the best solutions to local government problems emerge in this way. Look at Nextdoor. A city didn’t create that. It’s a platform for neighborhoods to surface and deal with problems in their community. Previously, that’s something you’d expect a government to provide. If we continued to think like that, then we wouldn’t have this service—or we would have a poor version. Instead, an independent entity came up with it and developed it, and is now making a success of it.

Q. It seems like there are some obvious echoes here with the rise of the citizen developer and low-code development in the IT world. In a world with an IT skills gap, a company’s capacity to develop the apps and products they need to succeed is reduced. By increasing the ability of a broader swathe of the workforce to contribute to development — by empowering citizen developers — they increase their capacity to solve IT problems, drive innovation, and be productive. Is that right?

I think it is right to say that if the software is easier to use, you can broaden the participation of people who can make changes to it. If it’s more configurable, with more drag-and-drop-type interfaces, then more people from across your workforce can start to contribute to development.

Look at something like Excel and look at conditional formatting. I mean, go back a few years — it didn’t seem like conditional formatting in a spreadsheet would have been massively sophisticated. I mean, you would need real chops to do that. Whereas today, pretty much if you take a 30-minute class, you can do conditional formatting, which is massively powerful as a way to help with decision-making.

We’ve certainly seen a general trend towards more low-code type development, enabling staff with only very basic coding skills to participate in development.

If you can offload some of those more basic issues to these “citizen developers,” then the technical staff can work on higher-value things. While I don’t think that low-code and no-code skills will necessarily drive core technology evolution. What is happening is that we’re giving more people more capacity to have more impact as individuals across their divisions and departments.

Jonathan is one of the experts we’ve been interviewing on the IT skills gap, low-code development, and citizen developers. For more on these topics, check out:

David Riggan and Sudheer Sura of BMC on how to turn 15 developers into 100; Anna Rodriguez of Slalom on how developer skills can keep pace with tech trends; Michael Krigsman of CXOTalk on why the growing skills gap is provoking an “innovation vs efficiency” struggle in IT, and Sarah Franklin of Salesforce on how to empower everyone to be a developer.


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