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Workforce of the future update

This article appears in the issue June 2016 [Volume 25, Issue 6]
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It’s 2009. I’m in a parking lot in Winchester, Virginia, with Ed Helvey: writer, speaker, audio engineer, producer, book publisher and freelancer-at-large. He’s just finished selling off enough books, audio equipment, furniture and other “stuff” to fill a small warehouse. Amidst all the selling, he was proudly showing me one of his few purchases—a ’94 Ford high-top conversion van, completely empty in the back except for an old, faded captain’s chair.

Fast-forward to 2016, Winchester, Virginia. Different parking lot, same van. Only now it’s fully outfitted as an all-in-one home, office, studio and motor coach.

From editing and producing audio programs to taking in breathtaking vistas as he travels across the United States (47 states and counting), he does it all in a space of about 50 square feet. Funny how when you decide to “live freely” (his blog site is 2livefreely.com), you discover how small a footprint you really need. And as you might have guessed, he tends to bounce around the southern states in the winter and northern states in the summer.

The rise of the nomadic knowledge worker

Ed calls himself a “professional nomad.” When people ask him where he lives or works his answer is always the same: “Wherever my van happens to be parked.”

Here’s the surprise. When Ed began his journey seven years ago, he thought he was an outlier. Instead he found a booming subculture made up of thousands of people just like him. Folks from all walks of life who have decided to live and work in an untethered, “free range” world. People who roam the highways and byways in everything from station wagons to motor homes to even the latest craze, “tiny houses.”

He begins to rattle off a long list of his fellow nomads. And, yes, they are well networked in true self-organizing fashion. One composes and edits background music for a major syndicated television series. Another, a retired nurse, travels around the country in a converted school bus that includes a Jacuzzi and a small woodworking shop where he makes custom wood pieces and signs for a small Internet following he’s built up among RV owners. And there are countless others who are either semi-retired or who have simply decided to drop out of the “rat race.”

This is a trend you can’t ignore. Even if you prefer a nice, stationary dwelling for yourself, the chances are increasing that the talent you’ll be seeking is already “out there,” somewhere on the road.

A look at the numbers

Today’s workforce is more part-time and mobile than ever. And the numbers are growing. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that since 2005, the number of people working as part-time consultants or contractors (as opposed to traditional W-2 employees) has climbed by more than half, to nearly 16 percent of the total workforce. That includes a 100 percent increase in the manufacturing sector and a 300 percent increase in the field of public administration.

But it’s mobility that’s completely transforming the workplace. According to IDC, the number of mobile workers in the United States—anyone who works outside the traditional office—will grow from 96.2 million in 2015 to 105.4 million in 2020, roughly 72 percent of the total U.S. workforce.

Of course, you don’t have to be mobile to participate in this new “gig economy,” as it’s being called. For example, a growing number of researchers working for various think tanks are finding the word adjunct added to their job title. Similar to adjunct faculty in universities, they work as needed, typically on-site, on a per-project basis.

For employers, that means not having to worry about what to do with employees during the inevitable business cycle downturns. On the flip side, knowledge workers have begun positioning themselves financially so they no longer have to depend on a steady income. They’re happy to work on a project, then take time off to travel and see the world or take a sabbatical.

So where is all of this headed, and what do you need to be doing in order not to be left behind?

This time it’s personal

As we’ve often said, technology is an enabler, and the productivity gains it provides are a key driver. But as we enter the next phase of this transformation, the underlying forces will become more social and cultural in nature.

It’s common knowledge that two-thirds of the workforce is either not engaged or actively disengaged. The prevailing mood is one of major disenchantment with corporate culture. This is showing up in both our social and political discourse. Let’s take a look at some of the factors behind this condition.

In his keynote address to the 2016 Global Talent Summit in Washington, D.C., Jim Clifton, Gallup chairman and CEO, pointed out a stark generational difference. “In the last century, the key values of those seeking employment were peace, freedom and family,” he said. A job that provided a steady source of income was the basis for sustaining those values.

“That’s not the case for the millennial generation,” Clifton noted. “They not only want a job, they want a job with purpose.” Additional insights come from the 2014 Towers Watson Global Talent Management and Rewards Study, which identified “managing and limiting work-related stress” as a key retention driver for employees.

Even the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is getting on board. Shortly after he was sworn in as Secretary, Ashton Carter launched the Force of the Future Program, aimed at attracting and retaining the best talent. Objectives include helping DoD employees find a sense of purpose, achieve personal growth and craft a meaningful engagement experience.

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