Building talent for the future requires the help of business

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Whose job is it to close the gaps between work and education?

By U2B Staff 

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By now, you would have heard all the claims about the global skills gap: that robots are stealing jobs and forcing millions into unemployment, and that the jobless will continue to languish in unemployment if they don’t upskill.

As if that isn’t worrying enough, studies have also shown that 85 percent of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet. How do you upskill for something that doesn’t even exist? 

With trillions of dollars at stake, the dilemma is confounding economies from Europe to US, Australia and beyond.

But whose job is it to fix the problem? 


As talent incubators, the responsibility tends to rest heavily on the shoulders of higher education institutions. Yet, the sheer scale of the issue, compounded by disruptions in the higher education space, suggest this cannot possibly be the most sustainable solution.

In an interview with U2B earlier this year, Michael Burke, CEO of human capital solutions at leading professional services firm Aon, provides some valuable insight on what businesses today actually want from new recruits and how universities can help shape that.

First, the numbers

According to recent estimates, if G20 countries fail to fix the skills gap, they would be missing out on as much as US$11.5 trillion in cumulative GDP growth over the next decade. 

The UK alone would be forgoing £140 billion in GDP growth while the same fate will befall the US economy, costing it a staggering US$1.2 trillion in unrealised potential.

And as the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological worlds continue to blur as the Fourth Industrial Revolution is ushered in, the problem will grow even more acute. 

London at night
Failure to keep up with change will cost economies big. Source: Shutterstock

For businesses, operating in such an environment can be daunting. The struggle isn’t just about keeping up for survival, it’s about trying to prepare for what’s next.

Burke acknowledged this in a recent thought leadership article.

“The increased use of technology is enabling an intense rate and scale of change – similar to how the emergence of artificial intelligence is changing the kind of work that gets done and how we do it,” he wrote.

“Doing business in a volatile world is now the norm for doing business.” 

This “volatile world” he describes is one that is high-tech and fast-paced, with an unbending focus on making everything bigger, faster and more powerful–a utopia for technologists and capitalists but a potential dystopia for everyone else, rife with new challenges that could give rise to new problems. 

Fact is, businesses aren’t the only ones operating in such an environment. The effects of rapid technological change hurt the job market just as much.

The hard reality is this: if technological progress continues to outpace education, training systems and skill-building efforts, we can expect global unemployment rates to stagnate, if not increase.

A quick glance at current labour market conditions tells such a story. 

According to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) World Employment and Social Outlook – Trends 2019 report, although it took just one year for the global unemployment rate to go from 5 to 5.6 percent during the 2008/09 financial crisis, it has taken a full nine years for the rate to return to pre-crisis levels. 

Given the trend, the organisation expects progress to remain sluggish, with the rate likely to remain the same throughout 2019 until 2020.

So is education to blame for the widening skills gap?

No, it’s not. Because interestingly, global educational attainment rates have steadily risen across the past decade and beyond.

And as the global middle class continues to expand, student mobility rates will rise along with attainment, as more choose to send their children to institutions abroad. 

Global educational attainment rates have been on a steady rise. Source: Shutterstock

Recognising they are operating in a much more competitive climate, universities are responding by upgrading their educational offering, adopting new technologies to improve teaching and learning, and introducing new measures to prove their relevance in a tech-driven world.

Increasingly, they are also modernising curriculums to include supplementary online micro-credentials and pursuing more partnerships with industry, both as strategies to narrow the skills gap.


But when even they have no way of knowing what the future of world of work looks like, it almost begs the question: what’s the point of it all? Is a university education even still relevant today?

The short answer is yes it is but to keep pace with talent demands, universities need to really dig deep to understand what businesses really need as opposed to just what they want, and then get students prepared for that.

In the same vein, businesses need to work with universities to develop the talent capital they need, Burke says.

In fact, efforts to close the skills gap between work and education must involve every stakeholder, from universities to businesses and governments, he tells U2B.

And with the current pace of change in the workplace, he says businesses, especially large multinationals like Aon, “have to” collaborate with universities.

“Working across society, with governments and regulators, with universities, and with large businesses and firms like ours…. we feel we have a responsibility to add to that and we’re trying to do so.

“I think it’s a collective responsibility, rather than resting on the shoulders of just the universities.”

For organisations, working with universities means getting to talent early and helping to mould them for a particular business function. This can be done in a myriad of ways, from Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) programmes such as student internships or partnering on apprenticeships, or even co-developing curricula with the institution.

Activities in this space, especially among the world’s best-ranked universities, have become an increasingly important university offering. Today’s student cohort recognise that employers tend to prefer recruiting those with work experience, and want to develop their career-readiness during the course of university study. 

But these methods, though tried, tested and true, are not the only way.

To augment these efforts, Burke advocates another approach, one that begins at a much earlier stage of the student’s learning journey.

Matching talent with opportunity

As we’ve mentioned, a key part of fixing the skills gap crisis is understanding business demands and then building the talent for it. 

A talent mismatch could come at great cost to businesses, especially the bootstrapped startup trying to keep costs low. And for organisations looking for the right talent to help with their expansion plans, the talent hunt becomes tougher and even more specific.

According to Burke, what companies are looking for increasingly today are “pivotal talent”, key individuals within an organisation that have both soft and hard skills, and are able to marry them both to help drive innovation and change.

Pivotal talents, he says, don’t hide in dark rooms writing code–they have technical know-how and are equally excellent executors too.

“I think that’s probably come to an even sharper point now–who’s really going to move the dial for us (the business) as an organisation,” he says. 

students wait for a job interview
What are businesses looking for in their new recruits? Source: Shutterstock

But how do you build pivotal talent? Asked if it’s something best developed while on-the-job, Burke disagreed. He said it’s a good combination of technical abilities, cognitive skills and experiential learning that helps shape the best talents. And it’s not something universities cannot or don’t already do.

However, the focus shouldn’t lie solely on building or shaping a talent to fit a role. Rather, it should be about matching the right talent with the right opportunity.


Burke says the better approach to fixing the skills gap is by doing a better job of aligning young individuals with the roles they will actually enjoy. When a person enjoys the job, what tends to follow is success, he says.

To do that, he says individuals would ideally need to sit through assessment tests using tools that are able to understand and build behaviour and cognitive profiles, which are then used to match them with the right jobs.

This needn’t only be done during the pre-hire stage, which is akin to shutting the stable door after the horse as bolted. Burke advocates introducing the tests to young students when they’re at university.

CoCubes, an assessment and hiring platform in India recently acquired by Aon, is already doing that, working with organisations and higher education institutions there to match the right talents with the right opportunity.

Its proprietary tools help institutions measure and improve the employability of their students, understand industry benchmarks, as well as customise training standards, ultimately creating a synergistic feedback loop that connects the dots between work and education.

Burke says employers cannot rely entirely on exam results to find their new recruits as these do not adequately offer insight into the individual’s entire suite of capabilities. Neither is judging a candidate based on how well they interview, he said.

“Exams are one filter… but trying to look at the individuals who are going to be the raw materials for innovation and change in five or 10 years’ time is a little harder to find. It’s like trying to find that diamond in the rough, really,” he says. 

Assessment tests help remove some degree of uncertainty when finding for the right talent. But there are no guarantees, of course.

“It’s just narrowing your odds, if you like.”

So how should universities prepare students for the future world of work?

The accelerated pace of change in the world of work has rendered the job of higher educators extremely difficult. 

More than that, universities are also contending with a raft of other challenges such as the proliferation of online learning options and financial pressures from funding cuts to higher infrastructure costs. To top that off, universities are also competing in a highly saturated marketplace for a student cohort that’s become increasingly demanding.

Students today aren’t looking for paper qualifications–they know that there are degrees today that aren’t even worth the paper they’re printed on.

What they want is the education experience; the learning journey itself has to be one that’s transformative and that’s able to equip them with both the soft and skills businesses today actually need. 


Burke recognises the challenges universities today face in remaining competitive. It’s for this very reason why the responsibility of closing the skills gap cannot be borne by them alone, he says. 

But he recommends a high-touch approach to grooming tomorrow’s talents, something universities are best placed to apply as they deal directly with students.

This means putting students on the right pathway towards a career that matches what they can do, as well as what they like to do. 

“It’s about balance and trying to match individuals (to the right jobs),” he says. “Help guide individuals to the right career path and learning choices. And then I think once on board, (it’s about) how to blend cognitive skills with technical skills.”

“You will get the most successful individuals when they are pointed at something that they enjoy and where their passion lies,” he says.

This article was first published on June 26, 2019. U2B has updated the piece for republication on December 17, 2019.