By James Thompson
American Public Education, Inc. (APEI)
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and as society conceptualizes what “new normal” will look like, upskilling was on the minds of workforce managers. For decades, experts foretold an onslaught of technical innovation and artificial intelligence which will replace lesser-skilled roles.
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Simultaneously, employees have had their duties consolidated into existing roles as new responsibilities pile up. The net effect is people are told to fear that unless they learn new skills to perform more work, the bots will come for their jobs.
It’s an upskilling paradox—boost your skills and do more, but don’t expect flexibility in your schedule or benefits to learn and grow.
Even if you want to upskill, which sector and specific discipline should you consider in order to trade places? Who’s going to pay for it? What’s the ROI? Who is going to watch the kids?
What CEOs Worried About before COVID-19
Threats and opportunities existed well before the pandemic for CEOs too. These threats are what kept business leaders up at night, according to PwC’s 22nd Annual Global CEO Survey:
- Policy uncertainty
- Availability of key skills
- Trade conflicts
- Cyber threats
- Geopolitical uncertainty
- Speed of technological change
- Exchange rate volatility
- Climate change and environmental damage
Notice threat No. 3? It aligns with the widening skills gap. According to the Department of Labor, in mid-March, the U.S. was experiencing a widespread worker shortage to the tune of 7.6 million unfilled jobs. And the skilled Baby Boomer generation are pulling chips from the table to enjoy a well-earned retirement, which is further compounding the brain drain.
Notice what’s not on the list? Pandemic.
Most CEOs did not fathom a novel coronavirus that would explode into a life-and-death global pandemic and plunge the economy into recession. At least they didn’t imagine this level of risk in 2019, though the potential of black swan events loomed.
There’s no doubt—pandemic will top future surveys and rightfully so. Lack of skills will also be near the top as organizations transition to remote-work models.
Google and Facebook have already announced that their staff will work remotely until the end of the year, with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey telling 5,000 employees they can work from home ‘forever.’ Will others follow?
Some might argue that with the recent, historic spike in unemployment and headwinds impacting the economy, will resolve once the pandemic subsides, and the workforce will return to how it once was. Unlikely, and here’s why.
The Labor Department reported the U.S. had over 1 million more job openings than there were employable or skilled workers to fill those jobs, let alone people searching for those jobs. The data appeared just before the U.S. was hit hard by COVID-19, and subsequently, unemployment skyrocketed.
While true that unemployment spiked in April due to the virus-induced economic slowdown, the original issue of upskilling is clouded. Even when the economy eventually returns to normal, the definition of “normal” by all indications will be different.
There’s an unofficial experiment happening. Companies that previously were resistant to remote work, have been forced to try it. Many are seeing efficiency opportunities, or even advantages to reducing overhead costs for building maintenance, security, transportation, and more.
Unfortunately, swaths of jobs are disappearing. However, the pandemic has accelerated specific industries and functions closely related to remote workforces or knowledge-based professions. This will, in the long run, create greater interest in upskilling professional capabilities for jobs that can help organizations be more pandemic-proof.
Welcome to the Contact-Free Economy
According to McKinsey & Company, companies will focus on resiliency and efficiency, which will reduce their risk, increase their “ability to absorb a shock,” and to “come out of it better than the competition.” This change is catalyzing the “contact-free economy.”
While society changed behaviors overnight, corporate leaders were forced to re-envision long-term strategies and human-capital models fast, or fall behind. Many of the previously unfilled jobs (prior to the pandemic) are still open, and they’re even more critical, because organizations need them to rebound.
Post-pandemic accelerated functions include:
- Logistics or supply chain
- Data science
- Artificial intelligence
There are others that will rise to the top as the economy digs out. According to PwC, these are the four key forces that will drive the upskilling imperative:
- Increasing job automation
- Decreasing talent availability
- Decreasing mobility of skilled labor
- Ageing talent
PwC reports than one in five leaders believed their organization made significant progress in establishing an upskilling program. However, the definition of upskilling widely varies depending on the industry and location. They define upskilling as “an organization’s clear intent to develop its employees’ capabilities and employability, and to advance and progress their technical, soft and digital skills.”
How Do We Continue Upskilling as Education and Training Resources Change?
To solve the upskilling dilemma, we should look at the correlation between the availability and adaptability of training and education resources in a remote environment. Recently, many institutions of higher learning and students have experienced unprecedented disruptions, especially on-campus institutions that rely heavily on in-person or lecture formats.
While some blended or online learning is commonplace at most universities, scaling learning management systems to accommodate all programs and training faculty to adapt well to online delivery pose a challenging transition.
Meanwhile, the pressure for companies to upskill employees will not abate. Instead, they’ll look for nontraditional, cost-effective education and training providers that can align programs with their business strategies and talent development goals.
Education and training will need to be agile, cost-effective, and have the mobility to support remote interaction to align with the investment that employers are willing to make as part of their recruitment or workforce development strategy.
The future of America’s knowledge economy will depend on innovative and remote-accessible education or training to accelerate a migration of qualified people into positions that previously went unfilled. But through upskilling, that gap may begin to close.