Social scientists call it the “hollowing out” effect. They’re referring to the labour market trend seen in many countries over the past two decades – and particularly the UK – whereby large numbers of semi-skilled jobs have disappeared. We’ve seen increases in both the number of highly-paid jobs requiring more skilled workers and less well-paid roles requiring low-level skills. At the same time, jobs in the middle have disappeared.
Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, says similar labour market trends have been observed regularly throughout history, and are always associated with periods of technological change. “Through each of the Industrial Revolutions innovation has disrupted the number and nature of jobs,” he said in a recent speech. “Often, it has led to a so-called hollowing out of mid-skilled workers and a widening wage gap across the economy.”
More recently, the technological change in question has been automation. And while it is manufacturing that has most dramatically slimmed down its workforce, automation has quietly proven to be an even more significant workplace trend in the services sector, dispensing with the need for swathes of administrative and secretarial jobs.
IT is not immune to this labour market trend. Indeed, workplace trends in the IT sector are following exactly the same curve as in other industries. Mid-level roles are starting to be affected. Functions that used to require support, administration and management are no longer needed as organisations migrate business applications and systems into the cloud.
DevOps and NoOps
In IT, the logical extension of cloud-based services is concepts such as “NoOps” and “DevOps”. NoOps a term originally coined by Forrester, refers to the idea that once the deployment, monitoring and management of applications and the infrastructure on which they run is completely automated there will be no need to employ dedicated IT operations staff. DevOps, meanwhile, implies that automation will at least see IT move out of operational tasks, with any such work subsumed into the responsibility of higher-grade development functions.
Google chief executive Eric Schmidt is just one senior IT thinker who expects these ideas to become more mainstream over the coming years. Machine learning will power the emergence of a new type of computing architecture that automates many of the tasks, from operations to development, currently performed by humans, he says.
For businesses, these ideas offer tremendous opportunity – not only the impressive efficiency and scalability of IT platforms and services, but also the ROI of redirecting operations resourcing to more proactive, value-adding activities.
Facing the talent shortage
However, riding these trends also requires IT leaders to confront the challenges of talent management. Not surprisingly, many IT professionals fear the idea of roles and responsibilities migrating to the cloud, and the concepts of NoOps and DevOps feel deeply uncomfortable for operations and support staff right now.
Reassuring and motivating these workers will be a crucial task for many businesses. And to be fair, the historical precedent is comforting – previous waves of innovation, no matter what the industry, have always created more jobs than they’ve eliminated, even if it’s easier to imagine the loss of your current role than to think about what might replace it.
The talent management challenge today, then, is to translate that lesson of history into practical insight for IT workers over the next few years. You might point, for example, to research suggesting that the number of jobs requiring skills in cloud-based platforms grew by 26% in 2016 – and that this rate of growth is only expected to increase.
You might also stress that the nature of work will change for the better for many people in the future – that with the more mundane elements of their jobs automated, staff will have more time to devote to more fulfilling tasks. In a contact centre, for example, advisers may be freed from answering general enquiries and spend their time dealing with more complex, emotional or higher-value customer service issues.
Hollowing out, in other words, may be deeply unsettling for those affected, but it also represents an opportunity that should not be overlooked. People may no longer be required for mid-skilled roles, but the alternative is more challenging and stimulating – not the job centre.
The hollowing out of the workplace, in which semi-skilled jobs disappear, affects IT just as it does other professions.
Mid-level IT operational activities will be disrupted as cloud adoption accelerates and machine learning matures.
The move away from support and operations roles in IT can be seen as an opportunity for those affected to move into more challenging and fulfilling jobs.
Talent management is now a key task for businesses as they manage workplace trends such as the hollowing out effect - IT is no exception.