Dr Gillian Murray, Deputy Principal - Enterprise and Business, Heriot-Watt University

Dr Gillian Murray joined Heriot-Watt University in October 2016 to lead on the development and implementation of the University’s Enterprise and Business Engagement Strategy, mobilising the University’s intellectual and capital assets to effect greater impact regionally, nationally and globally. Gillian has a background in economic regeneration and is passionate about driving global innovation and skills development using new digital technology to break down collaboration barriers and facilitate co-invention. Whilst at the University of Liverpool, Gillian built innovative new models for Business/University collaboration, transforming the city region through strategic partnerships and supply chain development.


The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the employment landscape in a way that no other event in history has. The short-term consequences were severe – millions of businesses pivoted to digital organisations. In the aftermath of the pandemic, it is clear that COVID-19 has accelerated some trends that are now reshaping employment at the present, with impact on future trends.

The increased pace of digital transformation was further accelerated. Businesses have realized that faster adoption of automation and AI, especially in work areas requiring high physical proximity is the only way to ensure wellbeing and thereby, business continuity. For example – we have witnessed a surge in the automation of grocery stores that can replace the high levels of human interaction.

With so many rapid changes, in such a short span of time, one wonders what then the future of employment looks like.

The Rise of Automation

The world of work is certainly changing as machines are growing smarter, faster, and more efficient. Most analysts agree that many jobs will be lost to automation – while many more will also be created. However, there is a lack of consistency between the many productions.

It is clear that the impact will not be felt evenly across industries and timeframes. We know now that financial services jobs are relatively susceptible to automation in the shorter term, whilst driving and transportation jobs are more vulnerable in the longer term.

Besides technical and intellectual skills, success in this continuously changing world requires the development of self-awareness and social awareness. Educational institutions, and universities in particular, are also adapting to incorporate resilience building into their curriculum.

Focus on Upskilling

Industries are struggling to hire talent in high-growth areas, including tech, sales, health and management. A study by Korn Ferry, a global organizational consulting firm suggests a $8.5tn talent shortage by 2030.  According to the World Economic Forum, the global workforce is predicated to grow by 230 million people by 2030 and is expected to happen at a time when up to half of today’s jobs, around 2 billion, are changing due to new technology, decarbonisation and growth industries.

That is why education provision within the next 10 years and beyond, will be critical for ensuring our world and economy flourish.

Upskilling offers several advantages to both employers and employees. For employees, developing new skills will help stay relevant and improve employability – an example is acquiring the skills now needed to harness the power of the latest digital technologies. The upskilling journey could also enable the discovery of new passions and interests which could lead to new career possibilities. In the process of upskilling, you could potentially meet new people and expand your professional network, and this could have a positive impact on your career and perspectives. And finally, with times being uncertain, upskilling can help future-proof your job by increasing your value to your employer.

Equally for employers, investing in upskilling employees can benefit you in several ways. Talent acquisition is time-consuming, and as an employer, it is far simpler to retain existing employees by upskilling them for a changing environment than to hire new talent. Another reason is driving employee satisfaction – some studies have shown that 91% of Gen Z employees (born 1990-1999) factor in professional training opportunities when choosing an employer. Upskilling boosts the productivity of employees, which ultimately benefits the bottom line. It can create a significant competitive edge for businesses, plus some of these employees will be capable of stepping up to a more leadership-oriented role, if ever there is a need.

Demand for a Range of New Occupations

It won’t be just skills and technologies that will change in the future; we are likely to see a whole new range of occupations itself. Some 85% of the jobs that today’s students will be doing in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet. These jobs will stem from technologies that are emerging today, such as renewable energy, autonomous transport systems, blockchain and other technologies catalysed by world leading research within our global universities. It has been reported that future jobs could be as diverse as organ creator, earthquake forecaster, drone traffic manager and waste management engineer.

As economies across the world strive to be the powerhouse of new high growth industries there will be a continuous drive towards highly skilled occupations.

Most future jobs will be green and digital. Higher cognitive skills will be a foundation for a large proportion of these jobs. These skills will be relevant to multiple sectors and therefore competition will be high.

Many of the new positions in the modern workforce favour those with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. Jobs in science, research, engineering and technology fields have been predicted to grow twice as fast as other careers (6% versus 3%), driven by the factors we heard earlier – the pace of infrastructure investment and digital innovation.

Finally, will there be enough work in the future?

The answer is yes. Historically, there have been changes to technology and the market has eventually adjusted to these changes. With sufficient economic growth, innovation, and investment, certainly there can be enough new job creation to offset the impact of automation. However, as seen from the above trends, the real question is whether workers will have the necessary skills to transition into these new roles and maintain their skills throughout their working lifetime the duration of which could exceed 50 years. The demand for education will soar. Therefore, the future of employment should be more focused on lifelong learning and developing flexible and work-based education pathways to all staff to flourish.

In recognition of the importance of such a discussion, Heriot-Watt University will be hosting a thought-provoking Future Skills Conference at the UK pavilion at Expo 2020 on December 8, 2021. Echoing the theme of Expo 2020, Connecting Minds and Creating the Future, the conference will explore how the University’s world-leading research is shaping education, catalysing industries and framing jobs of tomorrow in response to the changing workplace – through sustainability, mobility and opportunity.

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