PwC’s 21st CEO Survey: Future-Proofing Today’s Workforce for Tomorrow

Authors: Bob Moritz, Global Chairman, PwC US and Carol Stubbings, Global Head of People & Organisation, PwC US  

There is a run on digital talent, and it is playing out across the world. PwC’s 21st CEO Survey, released this week in Davos, illuminates the urgency of this quest and the steps organisations in various regions are taking to buy, borrow and build a future-proofed workforce.

Not surprisingly, only one in four CEOs in the survey describe it as “somewhat” or “very easy” to attract digital talent. The optimistic outlier is the Asia-Pacific region, more specifically China where 60% of CEOs indicate that attracting digital talent is “somewhat” or “very easy.” The equivalent figure in the US is half that (30%) and only about a fifth as large in Germany (13%).

As part of the CEO Survey, we interviewed a number of CEOs. Valentin Stalf, CEO of German mobile banking startup N26, had this to say: “Talent is the key. Our biggest opportunity cost today is that we don’t always get the right people. And it’s especially true for tech and online jobs. The educational system is much slower than the transformation on the tech side, so people are still studying offline marketing when we need hundreds of people working in online marketing. We don’t have enough software developers. If we could hire 200 highly skilled people tomorrow we’d do that.”

So, what are companies doing to bridge the gap? To lure digital talent, organisations across the world are engaging in a range of strategies, the most widely used being: ‘modernising the working environment’ and ‘implementing continuous L&D programmes’. The only tactic not employed — at least to some extent — by a majority of the CEOs surveyed is “relocating operations close to talent pools”. Interestingly, “improving compensation packages” falls squarely in the middle of strategic options explored on a global basis. Regions are divided on “changing employee dress codes” to attract digital talent — it is not a widely adopted tactic in the Middle East or Africa.


As one might expect, CEOs who find it easiest to attract digital talent tend to be more active across all of these dimensions. In China, over 80% of CEOs report using all of the strategies at least “to some extent.” “Improving compensation and benefits packages” ranks #1 with 57% of Chinese chief executives employing this strategy ‘to a large extent’.

When we asked Asia-Pacific CEOs why they find it relatively easy to attract digital talent, a large majority credited their company’s culture, reputation, track record of innovation, and attractive development opportunities and compensation packages. Whereas CEOs in China focused on their companies’ efforts to cultivate digital talent using a variety of strategies, nearly all the CEO respondents in India noted the wide availability of talent in their country to explain why it is easier for them to attract the necessary talent.

In our work with clients, we at PwC have recognized that you cannot buy your way out of this problem, nor can you hire or fire your way out of it. The available pool of digital talent is too limited to simply switch out your existing workforce for a digitally enabled one. Leading companies have already recognized that what has to change is not so much their talent as their ways of working — their culture and processes. They have to adopt the constantly iterative, customer-centric, blank slate ethos of a born digital platform company. They can selectively infuse digital talent to help lead the transformation, but the secret to success is upskilling their existing employees to take on the work that will be relevant in an AI-enabled future.

To further that goal, the World Economic Forum in partnership with the IT industry launched the IT Industry Skills Initiative this week to reskill 1 million workers for the jobs of the future by 2021. This joint initiative, the first of its kind, will bring competitive training and resource content together on one platform — the WEF SkillSET portal. We at PwC are proud to have developed a tailored Skills Assessment tool, based on the Fourth Industrial Revolution skills research, to help users determine which coursework and/or learning pathways best fit their current skillset and learning goals.

Fortunately, most CEOs in every region recognise their own responsibility to retrain employees whose tasks are automated — especially as they consider the broader challenges society is facing. And employees embrace their part in meeting the future as well. Three quarters of the respondents in our Workforce of the Future study are willing to take the initiative in updating their own skills rather than relying on their employer. By working in partnership, companies and their employees can realise the productivity and innovation promise of a digitally enabled work environment and meaningfully enhance not only their own prospects but the prosperity and vitality of society as a whole. My hope is that by working together, we can drive more inclusive growth around the world.


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