OPINION: Want to mobilise employees? Redraw the start line

The 'Next Era of Human-Machine Partnerships' report, issued by the Institute for the Future, says 85% of the jobs that will exist in just 12 years' time have not yet been conceived.

Such bold predictions stir conversation and debate. The workplace of the future is a hot topic, met with both excitement and trepidation. Exploring the dynamics of the workplace of the future, alongside the prerequisite competencies employees need to display, is important. But these discussions tend to overshadow the real potential of the evolution already underway.

What happens now, paves the way

The emphasis on meaningfully developing skills within every business, across every discipline and in every sector, is gaining traction. However, in many sectors this rate needs to be accelerated, and the effectiveness of practices augmented.

With the threat of technology replacing jobs looming, it is important not to lose sight of the resourcefulness of the human spirit and the career opportunities presented by new ways of working.

As a sector that makes extensive use of both machinery and labour, manufacturing is a good illustration of progress in terms of synergies created between capital and labour-intensive requirements for improved outputs. Sitting at interesting crossroads, there is immense opportunity for the kind of employee development that drives not just productivity and employee job satisfaction, but equally, new opportunities for career paths.

If it ain’t broke…

Unfortunately, a significant percentage of employees within the manufacturing sector lack foundational literacy competencies. Besides this, there is a considerable deficit of skills at an operator level – a function that has an integral role in boosting business growth within the pulp and paper manufacturing sector. 

This gap tends to constrain their ability to add deeper value to the business and efficiently adapt to an evolving and increasingly demanding workplace. While many businesses continue to emphasise the development of management and leadership capabilities, foundational level competencies often tend to be overlooked as long as the employee is able to perform their job at an acceptable level.

As Thomas Bertram Lance is believed to have put it, "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it."

But low levels of literacy, and subsequently siloed functional competencies, present an impediment to productivity, limiting the cross-functional abilities of teams. Moreover, limited capacity lends itself to health and safety issues. Relying on technical competency, while important, is just not sufficient.

Making the world your oyster

In some instances, career progression is a foreign concept, and where it does exist, employees often resign themselves to traditional "vertical" career paths rather than exploring cross-functional roles. Understandably, the challenge of low literacy is not one that can be solved by waving a magic wand. Rather, as Lao Tzu said, "the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

Enhancing base-level competencies across the board, and consequently widening exposure, together with the employee’s ability to troubleshoot, can be immensely beneficial. This:

  • Creates an appreciation for their contribution to the business
  • Builds confidence
  • Encourages out-of-the-box thinking
  • Reduces the probability of errors and oversights
  • Stimulates organisation-wide integration
  • Promotes skills that are transferable across business functions.

Adult Education and Training (AET) is a great example, as it focuses on building an understanding of a diversity of concepts through the transfer of knowledge and skills which is particularly advantageous in environments with blue collar jobs. As the first, significant building block, it better equips individuals for broader workplace roles, more meaningful social engagements and more fulfilling economic participation. In South Africa – a country with a diversity of cultures and languages – more often than not, just the lack of fluency in English can be an inhibitor to personal development and career growth. AET is therefore also designed to help overcome some of these common hurdles and boost employability.

Finding the right balance

The right attitude will always be a key catalyst in any employee’s success, but combined with learning and development interventions, it can vastly improve the degree of attainable success. That said, to drive competitiveness within the market, every business should deepen its focus on nurturing agility and harnessing the potential of employees – at every level. This potential should be harnessed to:

  • equip them for the roles they are in today,
  • support them to meet the demands of future-forward businesses, and
  • help them conceptualise the roles and business of the future.

This mindset and investment can be a key catalyst in securing business relevance and success in the future, whatever form that future takes.

* Evelyn de Wee is HR director at the Twinsaver Group. Views expressed are her own.

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