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Dealing with skills obsolescence

Skills obsolescence is the unfortunate flipside of technological progress. Though the emergence of new technologies offers great prospects, it also brings uncertainty, as we can’t always predict how our professions will evolve. Is anticipation the only way to address skills obsolescence?



Recognizing the various types of skills obsolescence


Skills obsolescence is defined as a lack of up-to-date knowledge or skills that prevents a worker from performing his or her job efficiently. There are four types of skills obsolescence:


→ Physical obsolescence: this refers to the deterioration of a worker’s physical or cognitive abilities.


→ Economic obsolescence occurs when the skills previously used for a job become less important or no longer required


→ Perspective-related obsolescence: this happens when beliefs and perceptions about work and the work environment are obsolete


→ Organizational memory loss: this is the erosion of company-specific knowledge and know-how due to staff turnover.



Related: How can we assess skills?

« According to the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP), skills obsolescence affects 31% of workers aged 50 to 55 and 21% of those aged 30 to 39. »

Which profiles are most affected by skills obsolescence?


As an employee progresses in his or her career, it is normal that some skills cease to be useful. But skills obsolescence has taken a major turn with the advent of new information technologies.


Underqualified and older workers


Jobs are becoming more demanding, more complex – and this trend is likely to accelerate in the coming years. The least qualified workers, senior citizens, and all those who do not have the means to develop their skills, such as the unemployed, are the most affected by the obsolescence of skills. According to a report by the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP), the situation affects 31% of workers aged 50 to 55 and 21% of those aged 30 to 39. While technology-intensive occupations have been developing for years, older workers and the least qualified will not necessarily be able to catch up and update their skills bases in line with the new requirements of the job market.


Overqualified workers


Overqualified professionals are not immune to the phenomenon of skills obsolescence either. Unused skills are often forgotten – and there is little opportunity to “refresh” them or acquire new ones. Competition in the labor market is another factor: when competition is strong, the most qualified workers who accept lower-level jobs can lose their knowledge and skills.



Factors that promote skills obsolescence


A CEDEFOP survey on the prevention of skills obsolescence reveals that the phenomenon is more extensive in companies that do not actively promote professional development. Another context that leads to skills obsolescence is when employees do not use all their skills on the job. Skills mismatched to the positions held have an impact on companies’ productivity as well as on employee wellbeing.


Related: Insight #4 – Skill development plans: the pitfall to avoid



Anticipation, the key to fighting skills obsolescence?


Task automation, artificial intelligence and technology in general are disrupting the labor market. How can we anticipate these changes to mitigate skills obsolescence?


Anticipate business needs


In 2017, DELL famously predicted that 85% of the jobs of 2030 did not yet exist. The emergence of new technologies, automation and even artificial intelligence are disrupting the world of work as we know it. The evolution of professions is underway – and the pace of this transformation shows no sign of slowing. Some jobs are evolving, others are bound to disappear. In this context, managers, HR and executives must support their teams and clients in this transformation.


Anticipate training needs


Today, the lifespan of a skill in a company is estimated to be just five years. The OECD even states that technological skills become obsolete between 12 and 18 months after they are acquired. This makes it necessary to anticipate the evolution of professions and therefore of training needs. It is now up to HR and managers to map skills and offer appropriate training. According to the CEDEFOP, training and on-the-job learning appear to be the most effective means of preventing skills obsolescence.


Related: Skills management: three key moments to launch a skill mapping project



Adapting training from the school onwards


The economic and technological context has changed our perception of careers. The traditional education-work-retirement path is outdated. To fight skills obsolescence, we must continue to train throughout our careers. Education should not just prepare students for a profession, but also teach them to adapt to changes in their jobs and thereby strengthen their ability to move on to new occupations. The attitude of our employees is also key. They must be willing to learn at any age. Finally, we should also note that a company’s training policy has become a strong argument for attracting new talent, especially among generations Y and Z. For them, it is the sign of a company that sees far ahead and has real plans for them.


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Illustration credits: https://www.istockphoto.com/fr/portfolio/maksimyremenko