The McKinsey report “Help Wanted: The Future of Work in Advanced Economies” launched earlier this year discusses two worrying trends – a global skills shortage and a global jobs crisis.

It articulates a fundamental supply and demand problem in advanced economies, brought about by a mismatch of skills needed and skills available. On the one side we have 200 million people looking for work, and on the other we have companies and industries crying out for skilled labour.

To ensure that we can stimulate economic growth by meeting employment demands, we need to ensure that development of human capital is at the top of every company’s agenda. We must unlock the pools of untapped potential across geographies and demographic groups – from women, remote workers and older workers to the disabled, refugees and unskilled youth.

But how do we do this?

There is growing evidence that shows one of the keys to meeting this gap is the provision of meaningful opportunities in the workforce.

Providing meaningful opportunities requires two key conditions to be met. The first is focusing on the opportunity side of the equation – giving opportunities to people who might otherwise not have them.

From a demand perspective, this is about making workplaces more flexible and inclusive and removing unconscious biases about their ideal worker. Companies create opportunity by providing flexible work environments to allow workers to work remotely across geographies and to allow employees to balance their other responsibilities.

On the supply side, it is about skills and training. Companies and countries can enlarge their recruitment pool by investing and reskilling employees and providing training to people who may not yet be suitable for the jobs of the future. And it is about creative approaches to hiring, such as through internship programmes that give people an opportunity to prove themselves when they might not have the more conventional experience or background.

However, as we take more creative and inclusive solutions to meeting skills demands, we also need to look at the second half of the meaningful opportunity equation – the meaningful half. This goes beyond staff benefits and investing in training and development to ensuring that the everyday work experience is meaningful.

In their book The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer argue that the most significant impact on engagement is providing opportunities for employees to make progress in meaningful work.

Their research study of 12,000 diary entries shows that even small wins boost “inner work life” – the constant flow of emotions, motivations and perceptions that constitute a person’s reaction to the workday.

Meaningful work is work that employees perceive as contributing value to something or someone who matters (such as other team members, their manager or family). Managers can fundamentally influence employees’ perceptions of meaningfulness through their everyday actions and words, and whether they are “nourishing” or “inhibiting” the employees’ work and perception of progress.

Bringing these two things together – creating better opportunities coupled with more meaningful work environments – gives us a new approach to think about in human capital development.

It is about drawing from the maximum possible talent pool, and ensuring that employees at every level are engaged and improving their performance. Meaningful work provides an incentive to nourish skills and training, and the opportunities brought on by skills and training provide a greater platform for undertaking meaningful work.

Creating a work environment of meaningful opportunities is more easily said than done. But the prize – better employees for companies and better jobs for employees – is surely worth it.

Author: Geraldine Chin Moody is a senior executive in the legal and financial services sectors and a board member of UN Women Australia. In 2011 she was named as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

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Meaningful opportunities: Meeting the needs of the workplaces of the future

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