The Future of Work: Multi-Generational, Diverse, Flexible & Artificially-Intelligent

Editors’ Note: Clayton, Dubilier & Rice — in partnership with Working Capital Conversations — recently hosted a panel discussion on The Future of Work. The panel was hosted by Carlos Watson, Co-Founder and CEO of Ozy Media. Panelists included: 

  • Diane Flynn, Co-Founder & CEO, Accel ReBoot
  • Jake Schwartz, Co-Founder & CEO, General Assembly
  • Nikhil Sinha, CEO, GSVLabs

An edited video and transcript follows.


The Future of Work from CD&R on Vimeo.

Tom Franco:
Hi, my name’s Tom Franco. I’d like to thank you all for being here with us today on behalf of Clayton, Dubilier & Rice.

The topic this evening is the future of work. I was thinking about it the other day, and the words of the great Irish playwright Brendan Behan came to mind. He once said that work is death without dignity. Now, I kind of understand where he was coming from when he said that. He was, for sure, a great playwright. He wrote plays at night, but he did house painting during the day to support that effort. That’s pretty tough. So I wonder with [today’s] advances in technology and AI whether his life might have been easier. I guess in the next few minutes we’ll hear and maybe conclude, based on what the panelists have to say, that perhaps we should have re-branded this event to be, “The future of work with dignity.” We’ll see how that goes. But, fortunately, we have a very talented individual to help sort through this, Carlos Watson. He’s the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Ozy Media.

Carlos Watson:
I love this topic about the question of the future of work. It’s been one that has intrigued me and intrigued Ozy for quite a while, and I love having Diane [Flynn], Nikhil [Sinha], and Jake [Schwartz] all together to discuss this from different angles. Diane, before I ever ask anyone usually to weigh in on a topic, I always want to hear a little bit about their biography. What made them interested in this topic. And often the way I ask the question is, “What brought you to this stage? Why are you interested in the future of work? And what about your life brought you to this conversation today?”

Clayton, Dubilier & Rice -- in partnership with Working Capital Conversations -- recently hosted a panel discussion on The Future of Work.Diane Flynn:
I did something I’d never thought I would do coming out of business school and working a decade at BCG and Electronic Arts. I had two kids at home, and I said, “I’m going to take a brief career pause.” That career pause turned into 16 years and a third child. So I always say, “Never say never.” But about five years ago I came back to work. And when I did that, I had this realization that there are a lot of very accomplished women who have paused careers for a variety of reasons, who really want back in, and don’t know how. So I started a program that then turned into a company. It’s called ReBoot Accel. We get women current, connected, and confident to return to work. And in the course of doing that for the last five years, we’ve started work with companies like CD&R. So we’re really having fun working with all the portfolio companies around creating initiatives that work to support and advance women in the workplace. I’m also becoming an expert on the older worker, because a lot of our women are in their 40s, 50s, 60s.

Carlos Watson:
And Nikhil, what about you? What brought you to this conversation? Why do you care about the future of work?

Clayton, Dubilier & Rice -- in partnership with Working Capital Conversations -- recently hosted a panel discussion on The Future of Work.
Nikhil Sinha, CEO, GSVLabs

Nikhil Sinha:
I joined GSV last year as a CEO of GSV Labs. But I spent the three years before that as the Chief Business Officer, and then Chief Content Officer at Coursera. And at Coursera, we’re all about re-skilling. We’re all about preparing people for the modern workforce, for the changes

And the transitions that we are seeing – if you look at the average age of learners on Coursera, now over 40 million learners on Coursera, the sweet spot is between 35 and 35 years. So these are young people, they finished college, they started their careers, and they need to re-skill almost immediately. So that was a really interesting observation, which is that the people coming out of college and entering the workforce are requiring immediate re-skilling. So the work environment has in fact stripped the capacity of the people coming out of traditional higher education institutions. So that was the immediate interest in workforce development. At GSV Labs, we work with entrepreneurs and innovators across the world in trying to improve their skills, as well.

Carlos Watson:
And Jake, what about you? Obviously, General Assembly, the company you built and run and recently successfully sold, spent a lot of time thinking about this question. But what about you personally? Why did you get into the question of the future of work?


Related Podcast: Robert Seamans, NYU — AI and the Economy


Jake Schwartz:
The founding of GA really has a start with me graduating from college, Yale, not too far away, and finding that sort of everything I’d been told was kind of a lie. Which is that once you are part of these sort of prestigious institutions, your ticket is stamped – whatever you want to call it – and you’re set for life. And I got out into the real world and found that I actually had zero to offer in the workforce. There was a really huge disconnect between the sort of academic world that we all assume, through some weird osmosis assumption chain that has happened, that these institutions are designed to prepare us for our economic life. You could say what we did and are doing is disrupting the graduate school framework, by saying, instead of spending two years and a lot of money learning from academics, timeless frameworks that are somewhat relevant to the career you want to pursue, spend three months essentially doing a deep dive with the practical skills that you’re going to need day one to earn yourself a seat with your employer and start the career path.

This is especially applicable in the technical world. Whether it’s tech skills, data skills, design, where what really allows you to drive your career is way more about your ability to do as opposed to recite or prove that you know.

Carlos Watson:
Diane, let’s flip to the other side, not folks who are just starting out, but maybe as you said people who have progressed through life and are at a place where, for whatever combination of reasons, they want to return to the workforce. Does the future of work look better for those returnees, for those people that are ready to reboot?

Clayton, Dubilier & Rice -- in partnership with Working Capital Conversations -- recently hosted a panel discussion on The Future of Work.
Diane Flynn, Co-Founder & CEO, ReBoot Accel

Diane Flynn:
The number one growing demographic in today’s workplace is women over 55. That’s the number one. And the number of people over 55 is going to be 25% of our workforce in five years, and that’s up from 10%. So we’re going to have a lot of older people in the workplace, and we have to figure out how to up skill them, how to use them. I’m a big advocate for multi-generational workplaces, because I think the best ones are diverse in all sorts of dimensions. And you know, age is the one thing that a lot of companies aren’t capturing. But they’re starting to.

Carlos Watson:
Nikhil, we’re hearing the buzz of automation and of when people lose jobs. Will whole industries be changed? How do you think about the impact that automation and artificial intelligence is going to have on the future of work.

Nikhil Sinha:
Yes, I think it’s going to be significant, and I think it’s going to be pretty quick. I think we’re going to see this within the next five to 10 years. There are already over 100,000 retail jobs that have been lost since the rise of e-commerce. You know, the corresponding statistic is that there are over 350,000 jobs that have been created in e-commerce. But we’re seeing a change in where those jobs are. Any industry that currently is engaged in the management of processes and people together will find significant disruption taking place because of AI and the application of data. Amazon just announced a $700 million retraining program for 100,000 of their US workforce, about a third of their US workforce.

But the more interesting thing about what Amazon is doing is the changes that are taking place in the non-STEM jobs. So, software engineers, we know we have to produce. But marketing jobs now require significant knowledge of software and AI. Warehouse management and warehouse workers now will increasingly be working with robots, if not for robots, which may come in time … but certainly with robots.

I think the question still remains: what is going to be the role of higher education, and what’s going to be the role of government policy in this process? I think we’re seeing in countries outside of the US, governments significantly investing in reskilling of the workforce, providing tax incentives for people to be reskilled. We don’t have a program along those lines in the US, and I think we’re going to have to get very serious about tackling the reskilling issue if we’re going to cope with the changes that AI and data science are going to bring to the workforce.

Clayton, Dubilier & Rice -- in partnership with Working Capital Conversations -- recently hosted a panel discussion on The Future of Work.
Jake Schwartz, Co-Founder & CEO, General Assembly

Jake Schwartz:
Since GA was founded in 2010, what I said is if I had a dollar for every time reskilling has been mentioned by a CEO who’s not doing a thing about it, I would have a much bigger apartment than I do today. I’m having conversations with those organizations about what are they doing, how are they investing in it? And I think the simple reality is that model of how to invest, how to think about ROI on human capital, is something that companies are surprisingly bad at.

I think in the places where it’s going to work really well, it is going to happen fast, and we’re going to have to be very, very thoughtful about how to stabilize all of those people’s lives that are going to be affected by this. Because it’s going to happen quickly, all at once, and that [can] decimate communities. I think overall, automation is probably going to create jobs. If you look at any other big technological advancement in the history of the world. But it may take some time, and it may not be equally distributed.

And so, I think what’s happening is as these sort of very low skill, or maybe moderately middle skill jobs, kind of get swept out in places where you don’t need them because the bots are just fine enough, what’s really going to be laid bare is the failure of our educational system – and the illusion that we’re getting a good return on the amount of tax payer dollars and just overall opportunity costs that our society is investing in education. And it’s going to put a real strain on the system.

Carlos Watson:
Diane, as I hear you raise the notion of people maybe both wanting to return to work and maybe, you didn’t say this, but implicitly, perhaps stay longer into it-

Diane Flynn:
People are not only coming out of retirement-

Carlos Watson:
Yes.

Diane Flynn:
… within two years, but the vast majority of people over 65 want to continue working. Or have to.

Carlos Watson:
It strikes me that all of this will have interesting political implications.

Jake Schwartz:
Frankly I think it’s probably already happening. I don’t think this is something that’s like five years in the future. I think it’s right now.  I think the aging dynamic adds a whole other layer to this. Because, at the moment, we actually have more job openings in this country than we do people to fill them. That’s great. But we are also probably at the tippy top of a cycle, and we need to be thoughtful about that. But this aging of the workforce is a really interesting one. Because partly what’s driving it is the necessary of the people needing to work longer – not necessarily wanting to work longer. That’s going to be a massive driver.

Meanwhile, we still have millennials all saying that they’re under employed, and that they didn’t need a college degree to do the work that they’re doing right now. And that creates a lot of pressure. And I think we have to figure out ways to expand the pie in order to make this work.

And right now if you look at what we have in our arsenal, it certainly seems like all of this technology and what it can increase in terms of the capability to produce, the amount of accessibility, of sort of routine luxuries and standards of living around the world can be lifted. We’re going to have to embrace all those challenges as things just to drive the economy to the point where we need all these people.

Carlos Watson:
Nikhil, talk to me about how you think the future of work shows up in different ways in different countries.

Nikhil Sinha:
I think it’s going to be different, because the challenges are quite different. You take India, for example. 100 million new entrants into higher education over the next 10 years, right? There is no physical infrastructure to be able to train those people, to be able to equip them for the workforce. Increasingly we’ll have to look at technology as a means to extend the reach of both higher education as well as post-graduate education, whether it’s vocational or traditional education as well.

I think the big challenges that we’re seeing in many of the emerging markets, is how do you actually just get people workforce ready as they’re coming through a higher education system that is significantly deficient in being able to meet their needs? I think that’s a different challenge.

And I think what we’ve seen here in the US at least, is how do we take an existing fully employed labor force right now, and gear them to the changes, the technology and actually bringing into the work force? I think that’s going to change. There are going to be significantly different challenges based on both the age of the population, the stage of economic development in these countries, and what the needs of those particular workforces are.

Jake Schwartz:
We do work in a fair number of countries around the world, both on the behalf of multinationals as well as in those countries themselves. And what I, what I will say is there’s both similarities and differences. The age makes a huge difference. Where are the trends of the people? Some of it is like, wow, we’ve got all these young people, they have nothing to do, what are we going to do about it?

The other thing that the stage of economy matters, although, one thing you can say for almost certain in most developed or even semi-developed countries, is that they need to – they want to – be competing in this technology sphere with the entire world.

And the way tech works is that you don’t need to have built up 50 years of factory infrastructure and scale the supply chain in order to do it. You can maybe, in theory, leap frog it. So everybody’s chasing that idea. And so this demand for technical skills, the demand for this, it’s somewhat universal. You can do a lot of these tech jobs from everywhere. Remote work is a massive trend, and I think it’s going to be a big part of the flexibility that we were talking about.

Carlos Watson:
Diane, what do you if we enter a world in which not only the work force, but maybe the leadership of the work force, is more diverse? What kind of implications do you think that has? In other words, do we think the future of work looks different if the future of the C-suite is more female?

Diane Flynn:
Well, more diverse and female.

Carlos Watson:
Yes.

Diane Flynn:
Every study they’ve done on diversity, especially in the senior, the C-suite, shows increase in productivity, innovation, retention, and , job satisfaction. Every single study. By significant margins. And so that’s always where we start when we go meet with executive teams. We really talk about the case for diversity, because it truly is the way to build the best organization and it impacts the bottom line. So, I’m so delighted we finally have some research showing that diversity does pay.

Nikhil Sinha:
I want to go back to one point, um, around this issue of the cost of education and the need for degrees. If you look at what’s happening with online education now, particularly the early MOOC companies, everybody’s offering online degrees. And the universities that were reluctant to put their degrees online are increasingly putting those degrees online. And what’s that’s allowed us to do is to significantly lower the cost of those degrees by leveraging technology so we could take those same degrees that were available on campus and offer them online at a fourth of the price because they were delivered through technology.

So as we think about university and the role of higher education in preparing the workforce of the future, I think technology is going to play a great important role in how university education is going to be delivered both in this country and certainly outside of this country as well. And it does hold the potential to significantly solve the cost issue that we’re dealing with.

Carlos Watson:
I’m going to take two or three questions [from the audience]. I’m already getting the yank sign, but I’d love to take two or three questions.

Diane Flynn [answering question]:
Lots of older people are working because they want to, myself included. I mean, there are certainly people with need. But we are living longer. We’re healthier. Our minds are more… My mother never would have gone back to work at my age. And I feel like my dad started charter school at 85. That gives me another 30 years to, to do meaningful work. And so, I, I just want to make sure we’re not thinking that that’s not the case, because I see a lot of that. A lot of people want to keep learning and keep upskilling.

Jake Schwartz:
At the core, I think what we’re really getting at is, what makes meaningful work? Why is work meaningful to people, and is it meaningful today? And I think it really encourages to think, “Well, why do people work? What creates utility? What … are people … Are, are we using people to the best of their ability?” And I would argue probably the answer is no in most categories at almost all levels. One of my favorite stories … I mean this happens almost every time. We, we work with about a half of the Fortune 500, helping them do major reskilling initiatives and upskilling initiatives in-internally. And one of the questions that always come from the HR person, which I find fascinating, is, “How are you going to figure out which of our people are capable of being reskilled?” And I said, “Well, what do you mean?” And they said, “Well, you know, a lot of our people, you know, they’re kind of dead in the eyes, and they don’t really want to change.” And I’m always thinking about that, I’m like, “You’re saying that about your people, and you’re the one who probably made them that way.”

And there’s this sense that we’ve sort of created this paradigm really around the idea of how do we get humans to act more like computers for a very long time. How to get them to be reliable? How do we get them to output a certain metric? And I think what all this automation could allow us to do, then, is allow people from all different stages of life and backgrounds to participate in, is what else do need to make this work.

All of those types of demographics are going to be customers. That means something. They all have perspectives to bear on different parts of this process. What we found in reskilling is the people who can be reskilled are the ones who want to. It’s as simple as that. Motivation is by far and away the best indicator of who’s going to succeed in one of our programs. You can be a genius with three PhDs, and if you don’t give a s***, it’s not going to work.

The more meaning that is imparted in the work, the more it’s attached to a mission, the more you get out of people. And what automation allows us to do is get rid of the dehumanizing elements of work and maybe, just maybe, unlock more of that natural inherent motivational energy to go do something and make an impact on the world.

Diane Flynn:
Yes, most studies I read, 70% are not fully engaged in their work. Think if you could get 70% fully engaged, how much productivity you could get out of your talent pool?

Carlos Watson:
A whole, a whole different piece. I’ll take one or two more questions before we go…So, the question, for those who couldn’t hear it easily is, is there a model country that is getting this right and pointing the way forward for the future, much as we sometimes look at certain countries and their approach, for example, to education? And so are those ones we want to model after when it comes to the future of work? Is anyone doing something that’s worth paying attention to?

Diane Flynn:
Yes. I’ll just bring up one company that’s really intrigued me, and 28 countries are now visiting this company. It’s called Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand. And what they’ve done is a pretty extensive experiment with a four-day work week, and they pay the workers full wages. And they let them do this I think for three months, and they surveyed them on their interest in staying, their creativity, their productivity, their fulfillment. And they found that in every single measure, those were way up and their bottom-line numbers were positive.

Jake Schwartz:
I would say from a country level, it’s almost obvious that Singapore is… that’s almost true in almost every measure. That kind of really does change the game that their level of planning and investment. It’s also partly out of necessity because, they have to support and really think about their economic ecosystem, because they are on an island and it’s a city state. It started with tech jobs. And they are every year pulling different levers, “Okay, we see needs here. We want to pull this lever on incentives. And we’re going to reduce these incentives.” They’re very active, and they’re using data in the right way.

They’ve started talking to us about the aging problem, and they see it coming 10 years down the road and they want to get ahead of it. There are other places where it’s really interesting. I think people like to look at places like Switzerland for the way they’ve have a much healthier sort of apprenticeship model for young people going into their workforce.

We’ve worked with insurance companies turning their actuaries into data scientists very successfully. We’ve seen professional services firms. In some ways professional services firms have an easier time with all of this stuff, and I think about how ahead of the game McKinsey and BCG were with some of these things

These professional services firms need to [do this] because their people are all they have. And they can actually tie productivity all the way back to dollars, which is maybe the big missing link in a lot of these other industries.

Diane Flynn:
I would add one other program a lot of companies are doing. We’re working with Cisco right now, but Apple and Walmart, they have “return-ships” as a three-month internship for people returning to work. And they will upskill you during that three-month period. So, we go in and we help support the returners. But they do the technical training. We do other kinds of training. And they find about 85% of these individuals, generally women, convert to full-time roles.

Nikhil Sinha:
II want to go back … We were talking a lot about reskilling, and technical skills and the work that companies like AT&T and Amazon and others are doing. But I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the fundamental factors for success in the workforce, and particularly if you ask employers, continue not to be the skills that they have, but really the ability to apply knowledge through critical thinking, through problem solving, through collaboration.

Diane Flynn:
Creativity.

Nikhil Sinha:
Through creativity. Those are the fundamental enduring success factors that most employers identified. Layered on top of that then are the skills that we need. But what we shouldn’t lose sight of in this discussion around reskilling is the role played by these sort of critical lifelong factors and the role of higher education in particular in developing those characteristics – on top of which we can then layer on professional and skill-based programs.

Carlos Watson:
Nikhil, I’m going to let you have the last word. Jake, Nikhil, Diane, big hand please. Big thank you.

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