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120 million workers will need retraining due to AI—but they may already have the skills employers want most

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According to a new report from IBM, an estimated 120 million workers worldwide will need to be retrained as a result of AI and automation within the next three years.

Despite these projections, however, technical know-how isn't the most important thing employers want from their workforce.

In fact, it's soft skills companies are most on the hunt for. Executives identified traits like adaptability, time management and ability to work well on teams as some of the most crucial to the workforce today. These all moved up in importance from a previous ranking in 2016, when executives said technical STEM skills and computer and software/application skills were most important.

There are a few likely reasons for this, researchers note. First, companies have made significant strides in the last few years to invest in and integrate emerging tech across industries. "Entirely new areas of expertise, such as data science and machine learning, have saturated nearly every industry in a new business environment laden with powerful technology," the report reads. "While organizations still struggle to address gaps in technical skills, there have been significant efforts and investments to address these gaps at multiple levels to lessen the impact on organizations."

While companies have covered more ground investing in technology and hiring people with a background in it, they're now faced with a skills shortage among existing workers. To bridge the gap, business leaders want to know their employees will be able to learn such skills as quickly as new tech emerges.

These are the most important skills in the workforce today, according to executives:

  1. Willingness to be flexible, agile and adaptable to change
  2. Time management skills and ability to prioritize
  3. Ability to work effectively in team environments
  4. Ability to communicate effectively in business context
  5. Analytics skills and business acumen
  6. Technical core capabilities for STEM
  7. Capacity for innovation and creativity
  8. Basic computer and software/application skills
  9. Ethics and integrity
  10. Foreign language proficiency
  11. Fundamental core capabilities around reading, writing and arithmetic
  12. Industry- or occupation-specific skills

This sentiment echoes a recent talk from Elon Musk, who said "AI will make jobs kind of pointless." Even those who study engineering specifically may find their skill set obsolete when "eventually, the AI will just write its own software." However, the Tesla CEO notes businesses focusing on human interaction will continue to thrive, further highlighting the necessary interpersonal skills that robots are less likely to replace, at least as quickly.

Additionally, where technical skills can be taught though a series of coursework, solid behavioral skills can only be practiced through experience.

"Reskilling for technical skills is typically driven by structured education with a defined objective with a clear start and end," Amy Wright, IBM managing director for talent, told Bloomberg. "Building behavioral skills takes more time and is more complex."

It takes longer for workers to close a skills gap now than ever before, according to IBM — on average 36 days of training today compared to three days in 2014. Furthermore, only half of companies surveyed said they had a strategy in place to address the skills gap in their sector, and the most common practice was hiring outside talent.

Such measures won't fully address the skills shortage, IBM says, and it offers three recommendations instead. First, companies must personalize the employee development experience. Essentially, employers should use AI itself to get a better grasp of where workers are now, skills-wise, and personalize a learning plan to future-proof their career with the company.

Companies should also be transparent about the ways employees will need to grow their skills in areas that will impact to the business most.

And finally, promoting existing talent (not recruiting) will play a crucial role. IBM says employers will benefit by investing in workers who have an established background with the company who can then drive innovation from within.

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