Brave New World: Bridging the Digital Skills Gap | Colin Mansell
New Podcast episode is now live: “Brave New World: Bridging the Digital Skills Gap”
I had the pleasure to talk with Colin Mansell, the CEO & Founder of Skills Union, about the “Skills Gap” we are facing today and how to address it.
During the conversation, we covered the following topics:
✅ Skills vs. Knowledge
✅ New learning approach to keep the pace and stay ahead
✅ The role of education
✅ What are the top skills more in demand?
✅ How to address the skills gap?
More about Colin Mansell:
Full episode transcript
There’s a statistic that of all the new technologies that are introduced within a year 30% of that is already out of date.
So, going to university and learning everything no longer works, because actually, by the time you finished your degree, much of the things that you could have learned in that time are already out of date. And there’s a lot of new things that you have to learn. So it needs a new approach to how we learn to hear about lifelong learning. And I think that’s the the mindset that we need to bring to the workplace and how we are ourselves.
Hi, everyone, welcome to the high performance teams podcast episode for today, we will talk with Colin Mansell, who is the founder and CEO of skills union, a Singapore based platform that helps companies to hire and develop world class tech teams. We will be talking about a really hot topic today, which is the skills gap at the workplace.
them really happy having you at the podcast. Welcome. Thank you. Pleasure to be here. Good. Okay. So tell us about your story.
My story, sir here from the very beginning. So I’m from an international background, Dutch parents moved around a lot Southeast Asia, Norway, moved to London when I was 10. So
saw a lot of the world’s young age.
And then spent sort of a year the first 10 years of my career working in London during the time that the music industry was being turned upside down. And so my first job was actually working with record companies, when Napster was a thing. So this is before MySpace, and before the iPod had come out. So I was really at that interesting time where the internet was causing all these major shifts to the music industry. And you could see how much the internet was going to have an impact in other industries. So the first 10 years of my career, worked with record companies, then some media companies work with a consulting company that worked with the BBC, when they were trying to figure out how do you put the TV on the internet? Work with News International? Who does this is the times in the son’s head, trying to figure out like, how do you put newspapers on the internet. So it’s really the dawn of this, this great new medium, that is the internet, and then moved to Canada 1010 12 years ago, built an agency that grew to Vancouver, Toronto, New York, sold that to my business partners, then started a school that was looking at this digital skills gap that we’ll be talking about today. And then sort of when I hit 40, I spent a year on sabbatical, looking at how education and especially skills, education was, you know, creating economic impact in emerging economies to spend some time in Africa. And then came to Singapore, just before COVID, so really, two and a half years ago, and then have been working here. And we then to you and a number of some of the tech employers to look at this digital skills gap. So that’s me in a nutshell. Very, okay. So today we’re going to talk about skills. So let’s first start by understanding. So what is the skill gap are the types it also there’s some misconception between skill and knowledge? Yeah, yeah. So I think I think that’s a big thing of our time, right? Like they talk about the skills gap. And you know, that much of this has to do with technology and the speed at which things are changing. So I think in my dad’s generation, he was an engineer, so he’s still in as an engineer, as your retired engineer. But you know, in that generation, you went to university, and then you had one job, usually with the same company for your whole life. And it was really about the the knowledge that you would have built up at university, that’s then what you needed to know to go and do your jobs and engineering. It’s like all the things you learn about metals and rocks and whatever else engineers learn about, and then you’d need to apply that throughout your career. And now it’s actually much more about the skills economy. So it’s about you know, can you do software engineering, do you know this software? And those are things that you do rather than what you know. And so the way that I think this is described in academic literature is that knowledge is what you could call declarative content. So declarative means things like in the example of like language would be the vocabulary. So these are things that we need to remember. They’re not things that we do.
skill, or also called is also called procedural knowledge. That’s like what you do, and that’s where we’re seeing the big gap.
AP in today’s world is like, it’s not so much about what did you learn at university? It’s like, what can you actually do in the job. And I think the skills bit keeps changing very quickly. So new technologies, new platforms is cloud, cyber, there’s AI, there’s all of these things that are coming at us. And you can’t really learn it in the traditional model of, you know, you go to university and you learn AI, and then 20 years, and that’s going to be the same. So I think that’s the really interesting thing now is, is about how fast can you learn skills versus knowledge, which is really available in our, you know, supercomputer in our pocket is we have all human knowledge at our fingertips. It’s what can we do with that knowledge in the form of skills? That’s really what’s what’s changing at speed in in the world today? So let’s, let’s go in that direction. So what is the context of what is happening in terms of skills today at the workplace?
I mean, I think that, you know, going back to where I started in my career is that the internet caused this shift from going to really a linear speed. So you know, like, technological advancement in the 19th century was really, you know, the telephone or the TV or the radio, and then it would sort of take, you know, 20 or 30 years for that technology to be fully adopted, like cars took maybe 100 years before that was like hitting, you know, 70, I don’t know quite where we are, but maybe sort of 60 or 70% of the world having access to that. And the internet took like 10 years, like new technology platforms, like Tiktok, we were just talking about, literally, within a year can reach billions of people. So the speed at which things are happening is no longer linear, it’s exponential. So that the technology that supports all of those things, is also moving at an exponential speed, which means that there’s a statistic that of all the new technologies that are introduced within a year 30% of that is already out of date. So going to university and learning everything no longer works, because actually, by the time you’ve finished your degree, much of the things that you could have learned in that time are already out of date. And there’s a lot of new things that you have to learn. So it needs a new approach to how we learn. So you hear about lifelong learning. And I think that’s the the mindset that we need to bring to the workplace and how we are ourselves. develop our careers is really to be thinking about how do I pick up new skills? How do I keep learning? And how do I keep pace, so that I’m not automated? And, you know,
put on the on the, you know, the the old heap of what’s no longer needed? And in that sort of retired technologies, and how do I stay current and stay ahead of what’s what’s coming. So in order to better understand, do you have some other stats for us to understand, really, what’s the what’s the context today? Yeah, I mean, I think,
you know, there’s the statistics that 50% of the world’s employees require significant rescaling right now, and that’s the World Economic Forum data, that it’s now 95% Of all employers expect their staff to pick up new skills on the job, and that was 65% in 2018. So like, the speed at which it’s changing isn’t like it decades, we’re talking in this decade, we’re going from what’s kind of called the skills gap, to skills crunch to skills crisis, we’re actually another interesting stat is that there’s 85 million unfilled jobs by 2030, unless we radically transform the way in which we’re addressing the skills gap. So now that’s, that’s, that’s, yeah, crazy. So let’s understand. So what’s happening today at the organization’s how they are handling that?
Yeah, so I think the the interesting thing is
how to address the skills gap. You can do it in one of two ways. One is you hire new people, or you develop the people that you already have.
And I think most organizations, they have lots of time for hiring new people. And that’s actually what’s causing this.
You know, vast chasm of skills gap is that people are hiring new people, and they’re not really able to do so there’s like, there’s like, over a million open software engineering positions just in North America. A million right. And there’s there’s any 300 million people in North America, maybe a little bit more, but it shows that’s just within software engineering. So it’s not data science, client, cloud, cyber, like in technology, we’re talking about millions and millions of open job positions that can’t be filled. And then on the other side of like, how do you train people? That’s perhaps where companies should
be spending their energy and that, but they’re very slow to take it up. And the current models that they have are pretty ineffective, right. So this kind of goes back to declarative versus procedural. So that the current learning platforms are things like Coursera, or, you know, the MOOCs that were meant to solve the skills gap. But they are really just videos. And you can’t really learn a skill from watching a video. In fact, the completion rates are like less than 5%, or less than 3% on some of these courses. So there’s a lot wrong with how we’re trying to address the skills gap by upskilling people in organizations.
And it’s like any skill, right? If you were to learn driving, by watching a video of somebody driving, you’re not going to learn how to drive from that. And it’s the same with software engineering, or cloud or anything that you’d learn as a skill, you need to learn it by doing it, you need to have interaction with an instructor, you need to often be in a social setting and have hands on projects to work on. So that’s, that’s really how we’re thinking about that is how do we bring a scalable model for skills development into organizations so that you’re not just kind of hiring new people that you’re looking at the people that you have, or even people that are at the top of your hiring funnel and saying, Well, how can we create on ramp programs to address the skills gaps that we have in the organization? So the companies that you’re talking to? So what’s their struggles today?
I mean, it goes back to that stat 95% of all employers expect their own people to pick up new skills. And I think it depends on which study you look at, but I think it talent development, or talent shortage is kind of the number one or number two concern for for, you know, in the high 90s percent of CEOs.
So yeah, I mean, the talent gap, this talent crisis is, I think it’s ever present ubiquitous all around the world, every market, you look out, there are challenges, and it’s, it’s about how do you keep up with, with the rate of change? So okay, we’re gonna go and understand what’s the solution? But before let’s, what’s the costs of not doing of doing nothing? Yeah. I mean, I used to run an agency, and we’d have, like a peak, we’re, like, 25 people, 30 people, and they’re always like, three empty seats. And as a business, you know, that’s like 12 15% of your workforce is not adding value, you’re not an as a service business typically run at 15% margin, that’s like a target, it could be slightly above or slightly below. So realistically, the empty seats means you’re not producing that work, which means that you’re not generating that revenue, which means you’re basically running a breakeven instead of your ideal, you know, run rate of productivity. So I think the real cost to the economy is,
you know, it’s unimaginably vast. It’s all the it’s like saying
it’s missed opportunity cost, you know, that’s the real issue says, if we could train people quicker, if organizations were to shift, perhaps some of their recruitment budget into training budget, and think more about
how do I fill up those empty seats in my office or virtual hybrid, whatever the office situation is now. That’s really it’s your profit. That’s the way to think about it as a business owner is it’s like that final 10 15% workforce is getting that optimized is really how you generate profit, which allows you to grow. So there’s so much that’s I think, being lost globally, because of that, that gap. Well, what are the what have you observed? What are the top skills that I’m more hot right now more in demand?
I mean, there’s just a sort of the hard skills, which is software engineers, like chronically short, globally.
And then there’s branches within that this cloud, right? So there’s lots of cloud engineering positions that open cybersecurity is going to become a bigger and bigger issue within data, machine learning AI, which are, you know, all in the group of family of roles. Again, we’re, we could have millions more people and still be short. But I think also on the soft skills is
and I think this this gets described
as sort of the horizontal skills and the vertical skills are so horizontal is thinking about, you know, hard skills like learning Java or react or as a technology and then the sort of more
Vertical skills are things like resilience, and how do I learn to communicate? How do I develop empathy? How do I become a better manager? And actually, they say that, you know, you’ll get a job through the hard skills, but you’ll lose a job because of the soft skills. And if it’s not, you, it’s it’s people also leave because of managers. That’s the other major reason. So it’s like the development of skills for managers is also critically important if you want to build and grow your organization. And I think that, again, looking at well, Economic Forum stats, they always say like, these are the top 10 skills, and it’s always like, empathy, communication, problem solving, it’s the soft skills that we’re also needing to develop in our people.
And how do you see like, what’s the role of education like universities, on building the skills that people need to succeed in the future? So what’s happening now in that area? Yeah, yeah, I think universities are struggling, you know, because they play in, you know, and I think what we’ve we’ve talked about this previously is sort of we’ve gone from, you know, 50,000 foot view, we were hunter gatherers, for millions of years. Then about 5000 years ago, we became farmers, right? So we started an agricultural economy. And really, the average person went from hunting to farming. And then about 300 years ago, we went from the agricultural economy into the industrial economy. And that meant that everybody went from standing in a field to standing in a factory. But in today’s world, we’re actually in the information age. So there’s very few people in fully, let’s say, developed economies that are still in factories, they’re mostly that’s all been automated, and the robots are taking that over. And we’re mostly working in offices or even in remote situations. So actually, we’re now in the information age, and the university was really born in the industrial age. So there’s still this, you know, quite mechanical approach to saying, right, we need to prepare people for an industrial career, which would have meant you’re doing a function within a large organization, you need to do that function really, really well. And what changes in the information age is actually organizations need to be agile. So it’s not about being a big factory with lots of cogs doing their job really well. It’s actually about how do I build a high speed company that can evolve really quickly with the needs of
the world today? And so universities are struggling with that switching from, hey, we prepare people for four or five years, and then we send them off into the world to how do we support people for lifelong learning? And how do we keep up with the curriculum of today? How do we teach what is, you know, go Lang? Or like, what is the technology that just spiked in the last 12 months? And how do we develop a program for that? And so I think it’s very challenging for for universities, because they still have the committee structures, the government approval processes that can take months, even years.
And that’s, that’s problematic. So I think they’re looking at new ways to engage with industry, looking at partnership models, looking at platforms, modularization of courses, new ways for certificates to be reimagined.
So I think universities are going through huge changes at the moment. And yeah, and will will need to continue doing so to kind of keep up with this information age that we’re, we’re now in.
There’s a lot going so it’s not just universities, I mean, everyone is, is hard to keep the pace of the change, like Yeah, nology. And what you say is, is it is now it’s about agility, it’s about your speed that people learn and get the skills and that’s where the struggle. Okay, so So
I love this topic. I think it’s, there’s a lot of people now discussing about this, I’m really happy having this conversation with you. And
so, let’s now look at the future. And like,
if you look at the future, let’s say in in 10 years, how does the workplace look like for you? What do you see?
So I think technology is going to play more and more of a role we you know, and it’s there’s sort of this, I think a lot of people think of like, you know, the AI is coming this kind of dystopian view of the future of like, we’re all gonna get replaced by robots. But of course, that’s not really the reality. I think that humans and technology have always worked hand in hand. So from, you know, the wheel, the fishing rods, you name it, humans have always like worked in partnership with technology, and one doesn’t function without the other. So I think we will become more and more augment
It is in our future with the technology but but in doing so we have to pick up the technology skill set means learning the software, learning the technologies is an interesting statistic around in the US 1950 or 1960, the average life span or the average age of an s&p 500 was like 60 years. So the average big company globally was was old. And now it’s like 18 years. So the biggest companies in the world are only 20 years old. So you’re seeing that, like agility being the real the real thing, right, like so, you know,
some people would say that the biggest company in the world in 2030, doesn’t yet exist, right? It’s being imagined somewhere in a boardroom or a garage somewhere, probably in in an emerging economy that we’re not, you know, thinking out Silicon Valley is probably not. So I think the future, it’s more technology augmented, I think,
mindsets need to also keep up with that. So it’s like, how do we become? How do we embrace that instead of fearing it? And I think that that is a big piece for us. And I think it becomes more global and more remote, you know, I think distributed teams, global companies that are not like, we have an office in London, or wherever we’re actually we have a distributed team. And, you know, this is the thread that keeps us together as probably all online. Yeah. So then now let’s move into solutions. Let’s understand. So then what’s the solution for that?
I mean, I think organizations
are going to play a bigger role in the development of people, I think they’ve been
in an industrial economy, they’re like, I don’t care, you’re a cog in a machine, and go be a cog. You know, and actually, that’s the industrial model, I think, in the in an information age model is like, we don’t need a machine, we need a a morphing kind of biological organism that is responding to the, you know, the inputs from its environment at speed, like high rate of change. So actually, what we need is a resilient organization that can respond quickly. So I would love to see, you know, when we talk to companies like Google, they have enormous resources, they have internal coaches, mentors, leadership, development, skills, development, academies, you know, you name it, it’s, it’s there. But that’s Google, who are the biggest, you know, one of the biggest companies in the world, and companies like that, we’ll have all of that. But we should remember that actually, 90% of the economy is small and medium sized enterprise. So it’s how did those organizations evolve because they represent the bulk of impact. So I think,
more models of personal development, both in soft skills and in the hard skills will get supported by organizations in recognizing that you can’t just go out and keep trying to hire new people. And we kind of liken this to,
you know, like health food versus, you know, like, actually, if you train your people and think about the future that’s like healthy food and going to the gym, but most organizations are still like, Yeah, but I’m hungry, and I’m in McDonald’s, or something. So I want to I want a hamburger, which is the equivalent, metaphorically of like, let’s just hire some new people, and let’s not invest too much. And I think that has to change. If we’re to address those sort of like, the 10s of millions or hundreds of millions of people that we need to retrain and rescale just in the next decade.
And how is your company helping
the customers? Yeah, so I mean, we work with universities like NTU, here in Singapore on these kind of hyper relevant skills, training programs. So looking at software engineering, product management, UX design, and how do universities respond more quickly to what is needed in industry today.
And we also work with organizations in addressing the skills gap, both through hiring and through developing learning and development programs for their people. And it starts with a kind of very accurate assessment on you could say, the quantitative view, and the qualitative views are quantitative being like, well, how many jobs do you need to fill and what does that look like over the next, you know, five years, or even over the next six months in a lot of cases, and then qualitatively, what does each job need? And what are you seeing in your talent pool and like, what’s the gap? So how do we bridge that gap with learning and development programs? Yeah, so very, okay. So
Um, let’s say myself, I’m,
let’s say I’m a CEO, or I’m an HR director, that my company. So what is your advice for me to do? What What can I do today in my organization in terms of skills?
I mean, I think I think the old way of dealing with it is the performance management system, right is saying, and very often that stops with, you know, we do an annual cycle, or we do maybe a quarterly cycle like that a lot of companies will do quarterly, very few of them have moved to that fully agile, like continuous iteration, continuous improvement. And I think performance reviews are still quite industrial of saying, like, how well is this cog being a cog? And it doesn’t, it’s doesn’t get into like, what what could this cog become? Or how could this evolve? And how could we develop this person to be more in tune with what they’re going to be good at? And what’s what’s going to be useful for the organization and building those learning and development plans? So then it’s far more effective to think about, how do we develop people, then do we grade them, and you’ve seen this in the school system as well, right? Like a lot of school systems are saying, actually, if we have all of our teachers going around giving people grades, they’re not teaching or developing the students. So let’s stop grading. And let’s just focus on teaching them, and it’s a bit of a mind shift set shift is to say, you know, as a manager, my job is not just to say, you know, you’re a c plus, and you’re an A minus, or whatever it is, but it’s what can I as a manager do to serve my people to make sure that they’re developing at their, at their optimum. So I think the shift is from, you know, performance management, to learning and development and becoming a facilitator of learning. I think that’s the big brushstroke of the change. And what else, you know, and we see diversity and inclusion as a major theme, especially in Europe and North America, where it’s been ignored, you know, and whether that’s from a
gender or nationality or an abilities perspective, I think we need to open ourselves up to really thinking about the talent pool from a very inclusive perspective. And that means geographically, how do we look at emerging economies where I believe you’ve got huge untapped talent sources, which is where I think in the next 10 years, you’re just going to see, you know, economies like Vietnam. I’m going to list a few Indonesia, South America, Central America, there’s India’s obviously already a sort of behemoth of talent. But I think that global perspective, that inclusive perspective of how do I build a team with all of the right talents, it’s no longer of like, who lives in my city and can fit in the office. It’s like, How can I think about resourcing from a global perspective and solve my my challenges that way? You think previously we spoke about also you talk about it is to be more experiential, more experiential. Yeah. Right. Yes. So what how can what is changing? And how can they what can we do as companies to be more effective? Yeah, in terms of skills? Yeah, I mean, I think that that’s the nail on the head, right? Like, how do you develop your people? You can’t just give them some videos, you can’t give them LinkedIn learning and say, okay, checkbox, they’re all now learning because nobody does it, and it doesn’t work. It’s like giving people that are doing driving lessons, some videos on driving, and then get Okay, off you go, here’s a Formula One car, you should be able to do this. Now. I think you need to dedicate time for experiential learning. So like, if it’s an hour a week, but it starts with that diagnostic of saying like, Well, what do you need to learn for your job? And then how do we get, you know, the experts in? How do we get you exercises and activities to do practical hands on experiential learning? How do we create a culture of learning within the organization? How do we create connections of expertise within the organization is like, actually, if you have, I don’t know somebody who’s in marketing, who needs to learn more about sales, don’t give them a course on sales, perhaps connect them with somebody in the sales department and say, How can we create these sort of alignments of the knowledge and skills that are in the organization and connect that is better?
And now I’m going to to finalize is, so if we look at 10 years ahead? We talked about high performance teams, what is one skill that myself as a leader, I need to start developing now. That will help me in 10 years, but maybe not many people are aware of it.
I mean, I think it’s as we as much as we have this technology
development, I think we also have the, you know, the call it the work generation, which is kind of perhaps,