Author Talks: Deanna Mulligan on smart skill building

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey’s Roberta Fusaro chats with business leader Deanna Mulligan about her book, Hire Purpose: How Smart Companies Can Close the Skills Gap (Columbia University Press, 2020). The former chair and CEO of Guardian Insurance distilled her research and conversations with leaders in the field into a playbook for readers seeking to understand how to react to trends in digitization, the gig economy, hiring, and education. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What problem were you hoping to solve with this book?

The problem I was trying to solve is a big societal issue—that is, the digitization of everything. That and the ability to work from anywhere are creating a need for companies to reskill and retrain their workforces. Some of McKinsey’s own statistics actually bear that out, that in the next decade there will be about 350 million jobs changing globally. And about 75 million of those jobs will go unfilled, using today’s statistics, because companies will be unable to find people with the skills they need. I wrote the book because I wanted to talk a little bit about my experience as CEO of Guardian but also about the experiences of a number of other CEOs, not-for-profits, university presidents, and professors whom I met along the way and their experiences with hiring and reskilling. I’m hoping that some of these experiences can be useful for other companies but that they also start a discussion in society about why this is really a critical issue for us to tackle right now. Companies are going to be a very big part of the solution.

Workforce challenges

Why is digitization so critical, and how is it affecting the workforce?

One thing that people think of when they think of technology is, “Is a robot going to take my job?” Many jobs can be partially automated. Very few jobs are going to be fully automated, though there will be some. But for the preponderance of people, the questions are really going to be: How do I use the technology to make my job more important? How can I serve the customer better? How can I be involved in more sophisticated problem solving? How can I raise my game and work better and more efficiently with the technology? Those are really important questions for today’s workers—and not just for people who are building careers and who want to keep their jobs, enhance their ability to earn, and be satisfied in their jobs. Companies are investing a lot of money in this new technology. If they want to see the kind of exponential growth we think we can get from productivity, they need to help people use the technology. This is not something people learn in school; there’s going to be a lot of learning on the job here. We’re going to install a piece of technology, and the people whose jobs are enhanced or partially replaced by that technology are going to have to tell us, “Well, this works, and this doesn’t work.” There’s going to be a transition period.

Where are current hiring processes falling short?

We tend to look for people who have done the job before. We tend to scan people’s résumés and say, “OK, when have they done this in their past?” Job titles have traditionally played a big role in that. But we can’t really rely on job titles and what people have done in the past to give us clues about whether they’ll be able to do jobs that don’t exist yet. We need to reorient the way we recruit and hire people and train people based on skills descriptions not job descriptions. That is a massive undertaking, because most people’s résumés talk mainly about their job history. I do think that technology might be able to help us out there. Some start-ups and even some governmental institutions are experimenting with AI [artificial intelligence], for example, to really interview people and say, “What have you done in the past?”

‘We need to reorient the way we recruit and hire people and train people based on skills descriptions not job descriptions.’

Workforce interventions

What are some things executives can do right now to begin to close the skills gap?

Start small. It’s going to be very difficult to transform the whole company all at once. Pick a problem that’s vexing today and say, “If we were to apply technology and a new way of thinking to this problem, how could we have a different and better outcome?” Get a team of thought leaders involved in solving this problem. And then use it as a pilot case—a demonstration that people can change, that we can use technology to make our experience and our clients’ experiences better.

Executives should also help everyone understand that this transformation process is not going to be 100 percent error free. At Guardian, we said: we’re a learning organization. People need to take responsibility for their careers. We’ll give you the tools. We’ll give you career-planning workshops and self-assessment tests and all kinds of things you can use to think about your future. But just know that your future may be very different from the job you’re in today, and let’s all work together and learn what might be coming and how we can prepare for it. You can do all those things right now, today, and they don’t cost a lot of money. You can do it in a big organization or a small organization or you can do it as an individual if you want to be successful in the new world.

What advice do you have for young people just starting college or entering the workforce?

Remember that people don’t necessarily need a four-year degree. We found as we worked closely with community colleges and brought interns into our organization from community colleges that we had great results and that a two-year degree or even a certificate program might be just what we needed for certain jobs. So while a four-year degree is always a good thing, it’s not necessarily the only requirement for success. In fact, if you think in terms of skills needed, there are certificate programs and associate degrees that might make more sense.

We need to give our young people a mindset of flexibility and resilience; they’re not just going to graduate with a degree in one area and immediately be employed in that area for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t work that way anymore. We’re all going to be learning, exploring, adding new skills to our portfolios. Changing jobs, changing careers. Our education needs to be a preparation for that mindset.

The impact of the COVID-19 crisis

How has the economic and health crisis brought on by the pandemic affected your thoughts about the research you’ve done?

The COVID-19 crisis has been, in some ways, a huge experiment in some of the premise of the book. We’ve all had to learn new things, right? We’re all on Zoom now. Not very many of us used Zoom to the extent that we do today. We’ve all had to learn how to be our own computer support at times. We’ve had to learn new household orders. We’ve had to learn how to teach our children at home. We’ve been agile as a country—we’ve had to be. I think we have to have the same attitude toward our work and our workforces. We don’t have a lot of choices here. We’re going to have to try and make it work.

Most colleges, universities, and community colleges have had a good part of their educational framework move online. And we’re not likely to go back 100 percent in-person. That’s going to be a real game changer—not only for college-age students but for workers as well, because we have proof that people can learn online. The move to online learning and remote work will provide more opportunities for typically underrepresented minorities and women. But it’s also going to mean there’s more competition for each job, because the pool won’t just be limited to people who are within commuting distance of the office.

What surprised you most about writing the book?

Well, I was running a Fortune 250 company while I was writing the book. So I guess one surprise is, the book took a lot longer to write than I thought it would. Along the way, the state of the art kept changing. Because technology is changing so rapidly, I had to go back several times and update things that were in the book. It just proved that the average person is going to have a hard time keeping up with technology when even the book that I’m writing about it is becoming dated quickly.

Author Talks

Visit Author Talks to see the full series.

Explore a career with us