Digitalization makes soft skills more important


The impact of digitalization on people and their work

What impact is digitalization having on people and their work? What do we mean when we say that people will have to work more and more “digitally”? What specific skills and behaviour will that require? For temporary employment and secondment companies, these are particularly important themes that affect not just their own organisation but also the workers and clients they mediate between. Jeroen Zwinkels became managing director of ManpowerGroup Netherlands at the beginning of 2019. In this interview he clarifies the impact of digitalization on people and their work. “You can’t be the only successful one in an ecosystem while the rest are not. That’ll only work for a short time, at most.”

Is digitalization a major part of your task as the new director?

“It’s a matter that sets about 30% of my agenda, but it’s by no means the leading aspect. It’s a bit of a risky statement, but the theme of digitalization sometimes has some features of the Internet hype in the late 1990s. Back then, just having a website counted as a business model. Almost the same now applies to digitalization. But digitalization isn’t a cure-all or an end in itself. Many of today’s resources are already digital and despite digitalization it’s still about matching people and jobs. So if you ask me whether digitalization is important, then my answer is yes. But if you ask whether we should be confused by it, then definitely not.”

So what does digitalization actually mean for you?

“We need to distinguish between what it means, internally, for our way of working and, externally, how it will affect the environment within which we operate. Digitalization enables us to improve our services and create greater value. Perhaps the biggest danger of digitalization is that people will blindly follow what the system tells them, for example when an algorithm makes a prediction about the suitability of a candidate. We’re therefore challenging our people to continue to think critically – even more than before. If you fail to do so, you run the risk of becoming too far removed from your core process, which has become far less easy to comprehend thanks to automation and digitalization. We also want our people to constantly think about how processes can be adjusted and improved. In the past, that involved discussions between consultants; basically, it was entirely analogue. Things have become very different now that processes have been defined within digital systems. Process improvements mustn’t come just from smart techies in the background; they need to be fed by the market.”

So you need to understand exactly what clients and candidates want?

“That’s right, but that’s becoming rather different. In the past you had a lot of contacts with clients and candidates about what were often routine administrative matters. You built up the relationship based on all those contacts. Automation and digitalization have largely done away with those contacts. So digitalization offers enormous opportunities: there’s scope for devoting more time and attention to the real connection with the client or the candidate. There’s also a great need for this within both groups, which is why ‘soft skills’ – the social and interpersonal skills needed to make that connection real – are becoming increasingly important. That’s why we devote a great deal of time and attention to them in our internal training programme.”

What are the downsides of digitalization?

“This brings us to the effects on the environment within which we work. In a lot of the sectors where we bring clients and candidates together, digitalization has led to a rapidly widening skills gap. It means that more and different skills are required in order to remain successful in a given job, so the need for retraining and refresher training is therefore increasing. There are groups within society that are having to pay the price for that. People who aren’t able to acquire those new skills find themselves marginalised and see their distance to the labour market increasing. Society – including government, companies, employees, and trade unions – has a moral duty to create a safety net for those people.”

What is Manpower doing for those groups in the light of that moral duty?

“There are three things we’re doing. We take people with poor job prospects and get them ‘job ready’. Last year, together with JINC, we helped thousands of young people. It’s not about training but about how to take a job interview, for example. We also do a lot in the way of retraining and refresher training. We offer training courses for tens of thousands of people, ranging from short online courses to training programmes lasting a year. These are for people who are still equipped to perform a certain role, but who – in our clients’ and our own view – need to take a course if they want to remain employable. That’s a requirement in more and more professions. Finally, we’re committed to inclusiveness: gender equality and participation by women, refugees, and migrant workers. We believe that everyone who is entitled to live in the Netherlands has the right to participate in the labour market.”

That doesn’t sound like a downside. Aren’t those mainly opportunities for you?

“It does indeed offer opportunities, but if you don’t organise anything to deal with the situation, it is in fact a downside. We really are doing this because we consider it to be our moral duty. ‘We care, we share, we dare’ – those are the values formulated 71 years ago by the founder of Manpower in America. And as part of society we therefore also have a social role to play.”

Where does Manpower’s responsibility end and that of the candidates and other parties begin?

“I’m not a believer in a clearly delineated system of responsibilities, but I am a great believer in mutual dependence. I think that’s more appropriate for the times we live in. I think that we as Manpower should demonstrate leadership in this regard, but if there are parties who don’t see a role for themselves… well, ‘the caravan moves on’, as they say. We aren’t constructing a new social model, but if we do this properly then Dutch society will benefit greatly. For us, it’s also a question of what the bottom line is, but in an ecosystem full of interdependencies, you can’t be the only successful one while the rest are not. That’ll only work for a short time, at most.”

Are you already talking to other stakeholders about this subject?

“We’re talking to clients about the short term, but especially about the long term. Most clients do see that their playing field is changing as a result of globalisation, digitalization, and new entrants, and they realise that they need to be constantly on the ball about how they can continue to add value. That also means that they’re asking themselves whether they’ll still be successful in two years’ time with the people they currently employ. Take, for example, couriers who don’t just deliver a package but also install or assemble the contents on site or utilise the customer contact in some other way so as to add value. Or process operators who need to be able to oversee more and more advanced production lines and communicate about them with people from different disciplines. Those are the kinds of specific things we’re asked about. But there’s also a growing feeling among employees that they need to have greater control over their career. They are increasingly realising that once they have a job they can’t just rest on their laurels and assume that they’ll be OK for the next five years.”

What is Manpower doing to meet that demand?

“For example, we’re developing customised training courses in collaboration with the client. Or we may see a pattern in the labour market and invest in training candidates ourselves because we know that we can subsequently deploy them. In the autumn, we’ll be starting a project in the Netherlands that we already have in some other countries. Together with three to five major clients, we aim to create an ecosystem with which we can build a curriculum together, often for somewhat more demanding training courses. Those clients will make specialists, machines, space, etc. available, with the costs being shared between the clients, the candidates, and Manpower. We’re already doing that in Italy in the ‘Car Valley’ around Modena, where we’re collaborating with Ferrari, Bosch, and Microsoft to train people in such things as processing carbon fibre.”

"In an ecosystem full of interdependencies, you can’t be the only successful one while the rest are not."

Jeroen Zwinkels ManpowerGroup Nederland

Your values – we care, we share, we dare – indicate how you aim to work. So what about the “why” aspect? In other words, what is your actual purpose?

“Our ultimate goal is to help people and companies get the best out of themselves. In the case of companies, we do that by thinking along with them about which people they will need in the future and what we should do together on the labour market so as to meet that need. In the case of candidates and our own people, it’s all about their continuing to develop. But of course it’s not enough to just assert that people need to develop new competencies and that they need to work on their employability. It’s also a matter of providing leadership. That’s where mutual dependence reappears. We’ll have to help our people in that regard.”

Does that apply to you, too, in your new role? What are you going to be doing?

It definitely applies to me too! My role is mainly about setting the pace and indicating the urgency. Basically, it’s about connecting the long term with what we need to do today and tomorrow. In the past, if things weren’t running smoothly you might have waited to see how they would develop in the next quarter, but that’s no longer possible. Developments are happening so quickly; not addressing something immediately means by definition that you’re going to lag behind. That’s why I expect my management team to raise issues that we need to change right away – immediately! There’s a good reason why various smaller, specialised parties in this sector are growing far faster than the big boys – it’s because those smaller parties are a lot more ‘agile’. Fortunately, our company displays a great deal of creativity, agility, and willingness to change and improve. We intend making full use of those qualities in the years ahead.”

Contact us

Rik Blokhuis

Director, PwC Netherlands

Tel: +31 (0)88 792 55 41

Christianne Leenhouts

Senior manager

Tel: +31 88 792 64 66

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