Global competition, emerging skill shortages, and changing demographics will soon force companies to use their most highly paid talent more effectively.
The past three decades saw companies in developed economies make huge strides improving the productivity and organizational performance of an array of jobs. Aided by advances in technology and digital communications, companies automated, reengineered, and outsourced numerous tasks that had once required full-time, on-site employees. The trend, which began on production floors, moved next to offices, where a range of transaction-based jobs that could be standardized or scripted were automated, shifted to workers in low-wage countries, or both.
Through all such changes, a broad swath of employment remained largely untouched: work requiring extensive human interactions. Among these positions are the jobs held by knowledge workers—the doctors, engineers, lawyers, managers, sales representatives, teachers, and other skilled professionals who together serve as the engine of the knowledge economy. Research from McKinsey and others has shown that such interaction workers are vital to the competitive success of companies and countries alike.1 Interaction work is the fastest-growing category of employment in developed countries, where it already accounts for a large proportion of jobs (Exhibit 1).2 Because technology has tended to complement, not replace, labor in interaction work, until recently many of these jobs had essentially been performed in the same ways for decades.
Not anymore. Today, interaction work is at an inflection point as global competition, emerging skill shortages, and changing demographics force companies to use their most highly paid talent more effectively. Employers in advanced economies may soon, for example, be unable to find as many college-educated workers as they require. Research from the McKinsey Global Institute finds that in the United States, the gap could reach 1.5 million graduates by decade’s end. China, where many global companies have staked growth plans, faces a shortage of 23 million college-educated workers in 2020 (for more, see “Talent tensions ahead: A CEO briefing”).3
The causes of this looming talent crunch are diverse. In some advanced economies, notably Japan, stagnant population growth means there soon won’t be enough young workers to replace retirees. The underrepresentation of women, particularly in the ranks of managers and executives, remains a problem in some economies, notably Germany.4 And despite technological advances in communications, geographic mismatches persist between the supply of workers and the demand for them. In the European Union, for example, different national systems of professional certification, as well as language and cultural barriers, make skills hard to transport. Mismatches occur within national borders as well: even in the traditionally more flexible United States (where labor mobility is at a 50-year low) the unemployment rate was 11.6 percent in Nevada in May 2012, versus 3.9 percent in Nebraska. (A new report by McKinsey and The Conference Board, The state of human capital 2012: Why the human capital function still has far to go [PDF–1.2MB], examines opportunities for companies to better manage the global talent pool in an unpredictable business environment.)
A changing world
Against this backdrop, leading companies we’ve studied—in aviation, business services, financial services, health care, high-tech manufacturing, and other industries—are exploring ways to revamp how, where, and by whom interaction work is performed. Companies that succeed in these efforts will enjoy productivity gains, greater flexibility in responding to opportunities, and better access to scarce talent. But to get there, they must rethink how they manage their workforces. Let’s look at three approaches companies are taking, along with the implications for managers.
1. Break jobs down
Nearly all high-skill interaction jobs include tasks that can be hived off to allow the best-paid workers to focus on the most value-creating activities. A classic example was the introduction of paralegals into the legal profession, relieving attorneys of research and litigation-support tasks while allowing them to spend more time in the courtroom or serving clients. This shift created a middle-income profession that now employs more than one-quarter of a million people in the United States. Medicine is a field that is ripe for this type of job modification. In a study of primary health care clinics in the United Kingdom, for example, providers found that with a mix of 40 percent physicians and 60 percent nurses and other health providers—the opposite of the existing mix at the time—it was possible to improve patient satisfaction while delivering the same quality of care at much lower cost.