Skill shift: Automation and the future of the workforce

By Jacques Bughin, Eric Hazan, Susan Lund, Peter Dahlström, Anna Wiesinger, and Amresh Subramaniam (Source @ McKinsey),

Skill shifts have accompanied the introduction of new technologies in the workplace since at least the Industrial Revolution, but adoption of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will mark an acceleration over the shifts of even the recent past. The need for some skills, such as technological as well as social and emotional skills, will rise, even as the demand for others, including physical and manual skills, will fall. These changes will require workers everywhere to deepen their existing skill sets or acquire new ones. Companies, too, will need to rethink how work is organized within their organizations.

This briefing, part of our ongoing research on the impact of technology on the economy, business, and society, quantifies time spent on 25 core workplace skills today and in the future for five European countries—France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom—and the United States and examines the implications of those shifts.

  1. How will demand for workforce skills change with automation?
  2. Shifting skill requirements in five sectors

  3. How will organizations adapt?

  4. Building the workforce of the future


1. How will demand for workforce skills change with automation?

Over the next ten to 15 years, the adoption of automation and AI technologies will transform the workplace as people increasingly interact with ever-smarter machines. These technologies, and that human-machine interaction, will bring numerous benefits in the form of higher productivity, GDP growth, improved corporate performance, and new prosperity, but they will also change the skills required of human workers.

To measure skill shifts from automation and AI, we modeled skill shifts going forward to 2030—and found that they accelerated. While the demand for technological skills has been growing since 2002, it will gather pace in the 2016 to 2030 period. The increase in the need for social and emotional skills will similarly accelerate. By contrast, the need for both basic cognitive skills and physical and manual skills will decline (Exhibit 1).


All technological skills, both advanced and basic, will see a substantial growth in demand. Advanced technologies require people who understand how they work and can innovate, develop, and adapt them. Our research suggests that through 2030, the time spent using advanced technological skills will increase by 50 percent in the United States and by 41 percent in Europe. We expect the fastest rise in the need for advanced IT and programming skills, which could grow as much as 90 percent between 2016 and 2030. People with these skills will inevitably be a minority. However, there is also a significant need for everyone to develop basic digital skills for the new age of automation. We find that among 25 skills we analyzed, basic digital skills are the second-fastest-growing category, increasing by 69 percent in the United States and by 65 percent in Europe.

The need for finely tuned social and emotional skills will rapidly grow. Accompanying the adoption of advanced technologies into the workplace will be an increase in the need for workers with finely tuned social and emotional skills—skills that machines are a long way from mastering. In aggregate, between 2016 and 2030, demand for social and emotional skills will grow across all industries by 26 percent in the United States and by 22 percent in Europe. While some of these skills, such as empathy, are innate, others, such as advanced communication, can be honed and taught. The rise in demand for entrepreneurship and initiative taking will be the fastest growing in this category, with a 33 percent increase in the United States and a 32 percent rise in Europe. The need for leadership and managing others will also grow strongly.

There will be a shift in demand toward higher cognitive skills. Our research also finds a shift from activities that require only basic cognitive skills to those that use higher cognitive skills. Demand for higher cognitive skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, decision making, and complex information processing, will grow through 2030, by 19 percent in the United States and by 14 percent in Europe, from sizable bases today. However, work activities that require only basic cognitive skills, such as basic literacy and numeracy, will decline as automation advances. Basic data-input and -processing skills will be particularly affected by automation, falling by 19 percent in the United States and by 23 percent in Europe in the 2016 to 2030 period. The decline will be in nearly all sectors as machines increasingly take over straightforward data-input tasks.

The need for most physical and manual skills will decline, but they will remain the largest category of workforce skills. The demand for physical and manual skills has been declining for 15 to 20 years, and this decline will continue with automation. Between 2016 and 2030, demand for these skills will fall by 11 percent overall in the United States and by 16 percent overall in Europe. The mix of physical and manual skills required in occupations will change depending on the extent to which work activities can be automated. For example, operating vehicles or stocking and packaging products are more susceptible to automation than are assisting patients in a hospital or some types of cleaning. Physical and manual skills will nonetheless continue to be the single largest category of skills (measured by time spent), shrinking from 31 percent of workers’ time in 2016 to 25 percent in 2030 across the United States and Western Europe.

A survey of more than 3,000 C-suite executives in seven countries—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States—that we conducted as part of our research confirms our quantitative findings. Advanced IT and programming skills are viewed as the most important skills needed in the next three years. Higher cognitive skills and social and emotional skills will also be more in demand, while the need for physical and manual skills, particularly for gross motor skills and strength needed for occupations such as moving, machine feeding, and warehouse packing, will likely decline. Executives also expect declines in the need for basic cognitive skills, particularly the basic data-input and -processing skills used by data-entry clerks and typists and in a range of back-office functions.