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US workers are optimistic about the future — but some gaps in confidence remain

Hopes and Fears 2021 Survey

When it comes to the future of jobs and skills, US employees are far more confident and optimistic than those in many other countries, including Europe and the UK. Is that because they feel more prepared—or is that confidence misplaced?

Our Hopes and Fears 2021 survey of 32,500 employees around the world, including 2,000 in the US, found that Americans believe they can confidently meet the challenges of adapting to new technology, especially after the pandemic showed they can quickly learn new digital skills and adapt to remote work. They’re also ready and eager to upskill and embrace new technologies, with 60% saying they believe tech developments will improve their job prospects, and are less worried about automation than employees in many other parts of the world.

This optimism bodes well for business leaders looking to engage their workforce in building new skills and agility. But our survey also revealed some troubling undercurrents, including inequities among upskilling opportunities and a sizable group of employees who say they’ve experienced discrimination at work.

The optimism may be a reflection of current circumstances. The US economy is on the upswing and consumer confidence is on the rebound, in part due to the steady rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. In comparison, worker outlook about the future is significantly less rosy in Europe, where lockdowns and economic hardships have been more widespread and vaccination progress has been slow.

As business leaders seek to engage their workforce in building new skills and agility, it will be important to balance that optimism with reality. Overconfidence can make people feel less urgency to change or adapt, and with 79% of US CEOs concerned about a shortage of key skills to grow their business, they’ll need to continue to make the case to employees about the need to upskill and embrace change. Meanwhile, as the nation continues to grapple with societal challenges—including record-high long-term unemployment, systemic racism, and the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women and people of color—US business leaders will also need to to recognize and rectify gaps where certain groups within their workforce may be having different experiences. Those who manage global teams need to be mindful that confidence levels may vary widely from region to region. This will have implications for how teams work together as well as how you hire, manage and motivate people.

Key Findings: Where Americans are confident about jobs and skills

Americans see gaps in opportunities and inclusion

Takeaways

Tap into the confidence of your workforce—but be mindful of different perceptions

People are more engaged and productive, more willing to experiment and more adaptable to change when they’re confident. Use that confidence to spark ideas, launch initiatives, upskill and generally get people on board with new ways of working. Start by revving up younger workers, since they appear more ready to adapt and upskill, or, if you have a global team, tapping into employee groups from regions where confidence is high, such as India or China. Turn these employees into your change ambassadors who can help create momentum.

At the same time, recognize that this confidence is not universal. Our survey found significant differences in confidence levels in different parts of the world, and those managing global teams need to be aware of those nuances, especially on mixed teams. For example, while Chinese employees report more confidence about the future of work, Europeans are much more wary. Understanding the factors that influence employee experience and mindset can help you identify where you can leverage existing confidence while also building confidence by addressing concerns or fears.

Address the generational splits in your workforce

Your workforce does not universally see things the same way, nor are they having the same experience. Older workers are more hesitant to embrace change, which indicates a need to help them buy into the value of upskilling. At the same time, however, given that older workers are more likely to say they’re not getting any upskilling opportunities at work, you may need to give them more options for learning. You may also need to help them carve out more time for upskilling.

Meanwhile, it’s not only older workers who may need resources. Younger workers may be more enthusiastic, but do they have the tools they need to learn? We found that 60% of younger workers believe their ability to develop skills has been limited by a lack of access to technology (devices or infrastructure), compared with only 30% of older workers.

Expand access to learning for all

Inequities in access to training and learning are apparent across industries and education levels. This was underscored by the pandemic, when those who had access to learning were able to quickly learn new skills, while those who did not fell further behind. There’s a real danger of that gap becoming even more exacerbated among certain sectors that have been particularly hard hit, such as hospitality and retail, and among the long-term unemployed. Those workers face even greater urgency to reskill, but may have few opportunities to do so.

Business leaders have an opportunity to help rectify this disparity and be more inclusive by creating more opportunities and pathways for learning and training—not just for their own workforce, but throughout their communities. Consider partnering with local governments or agencies to develop programs that are designed to fit the needs of your community. In addition, look for creative ways to help people develop skills they personally care about. Given the high interest in entrepreneurism, for instance, consider how you can help people learn skills like creativity, innovation and risk-taking, either on the job or through company-sponsored volunteerism.

Use employee data and monitoring responsibly

Although younger individuals appear more open to sharing their data and having their companies use technology to monitor their performance, companies that intend to do this should aim to do so in a way that benefits employees as well as the business. For example, monitor performance in order to make work better for people, such as by identifying productivity drains or spotting opportunities where new technology could improve how people do their jobs. Be open with employees and communicate about how you plan to use their personal information. This can build trust, especially with employees who are less willing to share their personal data.

Make the case for preparedness and underscore the magnitude of changes to come

Confidence can easily spill over into overconfidence. Americans may feel more prepared than their counterparts in other countries, but they may also not understand how those changes may affect their industry or their individual career path. Leaders can help employees understand how climate change, tech innovation and other factors may require major shifts in business and in the way people work, and help their employees see how upskilling and retraining can help them stay relevant and employable. Leaders can also help individuals embrace other changes, such as mindset shifts that may help address the significant inequities in our society and help to reduce instances of bias or discrimination, including at work.

Workforce Inside: Insights from the 2021 Global Hopes and Fears Survey

In this podcast episode, we discuss the issues surrounding the digital divide and how leaders can ensure inclusive upskilling and reskilling in their post-pandemic business.

Explore the podcast series



Upskilling: business-led, people-powered, results-driven

Plan

Conduct an automated skill gap analysis that identifies critical skills necessary to compete now and in the future - a continuous planning cycle all its own.

Learn

Implement a primary learner platform that takes skill gap analysis from Plan as input, and displays customized learning experiences to the user. Two parts: 

  • Content - read, watch, listen (articles, listicles, bite size videos)

  • Courses - longer form skill building exercises with projects

Create

Build a tool learning sandbox that users can get hands on to immerse themselves in the tools and technologies and create digital assets to demonstrate what they have learned.

 

Share

Enable an enterprise-wide asset sharing social platform that helps our clients grow the return on investment and value by scaling benefits through citizen-led innovation sharing.

About the Global Hopes and Fears 2021 survey

In February 2021, PwC commissioned a survey of 32,517 members of the general public. Respondents included workers, business owners, contract workers, students, unemployed people looking for work, and those on furlough or who were temporarily laid off. The survey polled workers in 19 countries: Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Kuwait. Malaysia, Netherlands, Poland, Qatar. Saudi Arabia. Singapore, South Africa, Spain, UAE, UK & the US.

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Bhushan Sethi

People & Organization Joint Global Leader, PwC US

Alexandra Hom

Senior Manager, People & Organization, PwC US

Mike Pino

Partner, People & Organization, PwC US

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