Putting the Future in Focus

HR Tech participants explored how HR leaders can leverage technology to address the workforce challenges of tomorrow.
By: | October 18, 2018 • 13 min read

The rapidly changing world of work—being influenced by everything from advances in AI to the tightening labor market—was at the forefront of the 2018 HR Technology Conference & Exposition® in September in Las Vegas.

Thousands of HR executives and practitioners, thought leaders and tech innovators gathered to explore the role HR technology can play in helping companies embrace new workforce realities. The four-day conference featured 59 sessions organized into 11 content tracks, including everything from talent acquisition to AI in HR and workplace innovation. Apart from engaging sessions and workshops featuring more than 150 speakers, the event offered attendees the opportunity to see HR technology in action at the expo. Roughly 450 HR-technology product and service providers exhibited their solutions, including during the first-ever Pitchfest, an interactive competition introducing start-up HR-tech products.

Following are highlights from the conference.

Mike Rowe: Dirty Jobs Matter

Mike Rowe says he’ll never forget a certain poster that his high-school guidance counselor showed him as he was trying to convince 18-year old Rowe to enroll in a four-year college. One side of the poster showed a smiling and optimistic man in a business suit, the other a downcast-looking man dressed in overalls and carrying a wrench. The poster was captioned: “Work smart, not hard.”

“We’ve promoted one type of work at the expense of the other,” Rowe said during his opening keynote at the conference.

That attitude, he said, is partly responsible for the enormous skills gap that exists in the U.S., in which vital and necessary blue-collar work is considered inferior to jobs that require a four-year degree.


Rowe himself has become a celebrity thanks to his shows, most notably Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel, which celebrate the men and women who hold unglamorous jobs. During his talk, Rowe recounted in hilarious detail the battles that took place between himself and the management team at Discovery, who wanted Dirty Jobs to focus on trendier topics such as artificial intelligence.

“I said to my longtime producer, ‘Hey, they want us to do a show on AI,’ ” Rowe said. “He replied, ‘Artificial insemination?’ ”

Rowe said the remark gave him an idea, and a week later he and his production team flew to Texas, where they filmed at a ranch that breeds Brangas beef cattle via AI—artificial insemination, that is. Rowe, who tries to perform the duties of each job he profiles as part of the show, found himself tasked with artificially inseminating 75 cows and “stimulating” one very large bull named Hunsucker Commando.

“He still calls me—‘When you coming back to Texas, big fella?’ ” Rowe joked.

Management at Discovery was less than elated with the footage, Rowe said, but the episode ultimately aired and attracted record ratings. Discovery then decided that Rowe would film similar episodes at livestock operations and farms throughout the country.

Shortly after the last of the “AI” segments aired in late 2008, Rowe said, the economy crashed and the unemployment rate soared into the double digits. And yet, he said, even as the ranks of the jobless swelled, “Help Wanted” signs remained a common sight at the farms, factories and machine shops where he filmed the show.

“We keep sending kids off to four-year colleges to accrue lots of debt while studying for jobs they’ll never get,” Rowe continued. “Meanwhile, there are 6.6 million unfilled jobs in the U.S. that don’t require a college degree and, in many cases, pay north of 100 grand per year. And yet we’ve eliminated shop class from so many high schools.”

High-school students are being pressured to enroll in four-year colleges without understanding what they’re getting themselves into, he said. “When I was 18, I didn’t know my own ass from a hot rock,” Rowe remarked.

Recruiters and hiring managers try to minimize the risk that they’ll be blamed for a bad hire by requiring all candidates to have a college degree, Rowe said. “Then they can say, ‘We checked all the boxes; it’s not our fault,’ ” he said. “I understand the rationale behind credentialing. But I think credentialing is hurting us and widening the skills gap.”

To address that issue, 10 years ago Rowe started the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, which awards scholarships to help students pursue careers in the skilled trades. It’s part of an effort to reorient the nation toward a more positive view of blue-collar jobs and address the skills gap, he said. “We want to prepare people for jobs that actually exist,” said Rowe.

Rowe noted that many of the people he’s profiled for Dirty Jobs are actually happier in their work than their desk-bound counterparts. “They enjoy their work and, at the end of the day, they’ve clearly accomplished a task, whereas your desk at the office typically looks the same at the end of the day as it did that morning,” he said.

The much-derided millennial generation has a legitimate beef, he said.

“We’ve laid out a roadmap that says the best path for most people is also the one that’s the most expensive,” said Rowe. “We like to complain about millennials, that they’re snowflakes with their safe spaces and ‘crying closets,’ and yet we ourselves are the clouds from which these ‘snowflakes’ have fallen.”

Making Experience a Priority

At a general session on opening day, industry analyst Josh Bersin gave attendees a taste of what his latest research project—the HR Technology Market 2019—will entail. Among the many HR topics covered in the soon-to-be-published report is the employee experience.

Bersin noted that the HR-technology marketplace has turned into a market that consists of three tiers: the core ERP and payroll system, the talent tools and a new layer focused on giving employees an integrated experience.

“Engagement is an outcome of building a great company with great management and meaningful work and good experiences for employees,” Bersin said. “So, the engagement industry, which used to encompass a small number of companies that did annual surveys with benchmarks maybe five or six years ago, has now turned into a massive industry of survey tools and pulse surveys.”

The next generation, he added, is going to include nudges, suggestions and action plans for supervisors based on data so they can manage their employees better.

HR, Bersin added, is moving away from simply being a platform to becoming a means for improving productivity.

“We have more technology, more tools and we’re constantly connected,” Bersin said. “We’re walking around with basically supercomputers attached to our bodies, yet we’re getting less work done per hour over time.”

Why is that? he asked. It’s because “we have created a very difficult work experience,” he responded.

It’s no one’s fault this is occurring, he added. “Rather, it’s just the way the world is.

“I had a meeting with the CHRO of a large global company about two weeks ago, and he was going through all the things he was working on,” Bersin said. “One of those was a wellbeing program. When I asked him, just out of curiosity, ‘Why are you doing a wellbeing program?’ he said that it’s very simple: ‘Our employees are exhausted; they cannot keep up; we have global operations; we’re sending emails; we have meetings.’ ”

The CHRO told Bersin that his company also had set a policy that prevented meetings from starting before 9 a.m. so employees could get up in the morning, get some exercise or go for a walk before they started work.

If you walked around the HR Tech Conference’s exhibition, he added, “You’re probably going to find that most of the vendors have slapped the word ‘engagement,’ ‘culture’ or ‘employee experience’ on their products because they’re all trying to figure out how to improve the employee experience. This is the landscape on which vendors are developing their products today.”

Bersin suggested that if the tools you’re purchasing today aren’t improving workforce productivity, you need to ask yourself why you’re doing it. “I’m not saying everything in HR is going to have a direct impact on revenue per hour or customer satisfaction,” he noted. “But if you don’t get a sense that it’s moving you in that direction, then you’re going to find low levels of adoption. You’re going to find people don’t use the software. You’re not going to gain traction on the technology investments you’re making. You’re not solving the biggest problems you have.”

Over the next year or two, he predicted, HR is going to be viewed as a productivity-enhancing function, not just one focused on engagement and retention, “which, to me, is more of an outcome than a goal.”

Another challenge Bersin cited is the impact AI is beginning to have on HR and jobs. The research suggests that 40 percent to 50 percent of the jobs that exist today will be different in the future, thanks to robotics and AI.

Bersin noted that it’s about a 12- to 18-month learning path to reskill people into those new jobs. “Not 10 years,” he said, adding that HR needs to find the time to create an environment that enables reskilling to happen.

The research, Bersin said, also shows that graduates coming out of college today are not ready to go to work. “Companies are finding they don’t have enough problem-solving skills or collaboration and business acumen, so we have a lot of interesting challenges there,” he explained.

Influential Women Make the Case for D&I

Airbags were invented in the 1950s, were standard in most cars by 1988 and became a mandatory safety feature in 1998. Around this time, however, there were more and more reported car-accident deaths—not from the accident itself, but from the deployed airbags. Imagine that, said Rita Mitjans, chief diversity officer at ADP: a safety feature designed to protect people from dying was causing more deaths. Why was this happening? At the time, engineers designed the airbags to protect a 5-foot-9, 165-pound person—can you guess the demographic makeup of the design team? They were all male and, with no outside perspective, designed airbags based on versions of themselves. What if there were women on that design team? They could have avoided this mounting issue, she said, by explaining the size differential among men, women and children. Instead, manufacturers paid a steep price for not having diverse perspectives.

Mitjans opened the conference’s Women in HR Technology Summit, which brought together some of the most influential female HR leaders to offer their insights and lessons learned throughout their careers—especially as women and minorities in a rather homogenously dominated world.

In Mitjans’ opening keynote, “The Business Case for Diversity,” she weaved in personal details about her career journey along with some disappointing statistics on the state of women and minorities in leadership and technology. For instance, she noted that more than half of all college graduates are female, but only 19 percent graduate with an engineering degree and 8 percent with a computer-science degree. These numbers are even lower for women of color (11 percent and less than 10 percent, respectively).

ADP Chief Diversity Officer Rita Mitjans kicks off the Women in HR Technology Summit

“What we honestly need to do is address this in the elementary- and high-school level. That is where it begins,” said Mitjans. “If young girls aren’t interested in or encouraged to pursue STEM, then there’s no way this pipeline coming out of college will ever change.”

There’s also the challenge of advancing women throughout their careers, she said. According to a McKinsey study, 36 percent of white men begin their careers in entry-level positions and go on to hold 67 percent of all C-suite jobs. Those numbers stand at 31 percent and 18 percent for white women, 16 percent and 12 percent for men of color, and 17 percent and 3 percent for women of color.