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What the World Economic Forum's "Future of Jobs" Report Means for Internal Audit

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​Last October, in the shadow of U.S. elections and the ongoing tsunami of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released the third edition of its The Future of Jobs Report 2020. It landed under the radar for most of us, and at 163 pages including country and industry profiles, it's an exhaustive document that only economists and futurists could truly love. But buried within the report is a treasure trove of information on how the job market is likely to be impacted by COVID-19 and the ongoing Fourth Industrial Revolution, the digital revolution. There is also an ominous forecast for those of us in the audit profession, but more about that later.

In the report's executive summary, the WEF emphasizes that it "aims to shed light on: 1) the pandemic-related disruptions thus far in 2020, contextualized within a longer history of economic cycles, and 2) the expected outlook for technology adoption jobs and skills in the next five years."

Some of the key findings include:

  • The pace of technology adoption is expected to remain unabated and may accelerate in some areas.
  • Automation, in tandem with the COVID-19 recession, is creating a "double-disruption" scenario for workers.
  • Although the number of jobs destroyed will be surpassed by the number of "jobs of tomorrow" created, in contrast to previous years, job creation is slowing while job destruction accelerates.
  • Skills gaps continue to be high, as in-demand skills across jobs change over the next five years.
  • The future of work has already arrived for a large majority of the online, white-collar workforce.
  • Online learning and training is on the rise, but it looks different for those in employment versus those who are unemployed.

By now, you may be wondering what the report says about the future of internal audit and job opportunities in the profession. Fortunately, a recent article in the International Monetary Fund's (IMF's) Finance and Development magazine synthesizes the report's findings in a way that sheds some light on that question. Unfortunately, it's not the kind of news we want to hear. The article, by Saadia Zahidi, a co-author of the WEF report, is titled "The Jobs of Tomorrow." Zahidi shares four compelling predictions:

  1. The workforce is automating faster than expected, displacing 85 million jobs in the next five years.
  2. The robot revolution will create 97 million new jobs.
  3. In 2025, analytical thinking, creativity, and flexibility will be among the most sought-after skills.
  4. The most competitive businesses will focus on upgrading their workers' skills.

Those predictions are not too alarming for our profession, but then comes the grim news: The article reproduces findings of the WEF report that predict 20 jobs with increasing demand and 20 with decreasing demand. You may have guessed by now that auditors are on the wrong side of the grid. In fact, coming in at No. 3 on the list of jobs with decreasing demand is "accountants and auditors."

As I reflected on the prediction, I had to step back and recognize that it isn't talking about internal auditors — at least not the modern internal audit profession. If we are mired in auditing of financial reporting controls, we are likely at risk based on this report. However, there is ample evidence from this same list of jobs with increasing demand that the future is bright for us. Five that stuck out to me:

  • Risk management specialists.
  • Strategic advisors.
  • Management and organization analysts.
  • Organizational development specialists.
  • Information security analysts.

If your internal audit function is truly risk-based, and you have deployed a talent-management strategy to address those risks, you are likely surrounded by internal auditors who possess those five skills. The report also describes the skill sets that employers say are increasing or decreasing in value. The skills for which demand is increasing the most are:

  • Critical thinking and analysis.
  • Problem solving.
  • Self-management.
  • Working with people.
  • Management and communication of activities.

Chief audit executives who seek to be architects of internal audit functions that are strong, vibrant, and in big demand would do well to embrace the findings of the WEF report. We must ensure that internal audit is risk-centric — focused on risk management, strategy, business operations, and IT. And we must undertake that mission with talented, self-directed, and critical thinkers and problem-solvers who communicate dynamically with those we serve.

When reports are published that call into question the future of our profession, we must resist the temptation to be hand-wringers. Instead, we must embrace the challenge the research presents.

I welcome your thoughts on this important topic.

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