Jobs Sustainability: Reskilling for the Post-pandemic Workplace

Stephen DeAngelis

July 9, 2020

The pandemic has provided us with a taste of what the world will look like if job preservation and job creation fail to remain societal priorities. With millions of people out of work, there is genuine angst about how people are going to pay for the basics of life, such as, food, housing, utilities, clothing, and transportation. There is also growing fear employers will try to pandemic-proof their operations by replacing human employees with automated processes and robotics. A better way forward must be found and followed. Subject matter experts believe many employees must learn new skills if they want to remain relevant in the post-pandemic world. Fortunately, Laura LeBleu reports, “In the wake of COVID-19, companies are pushing employees to acquire digital work skills. … COVID-19 has given rise to a new suite of in-demand work skills to support an increasingly digital business landscape.”[1]


Boston Consulting Group (BCG) analysts remind us that the push for upskilling or reskilling the workforce preceded the pandemic. They write, “Change is coming and the workforce knows it. Sixty-one percent of people believe that global megatrends greatly affect their jobs and will continue to do so. As a result, many devote significant time to refining their skills. The vast majority are also willing to learn new skills to become attractive candidates for completely different jobs.”[2] The BCG analysts were particularly interested in how globalization and emerging technologies were going to effect the future workforce. They assert there are two possible reactions to these megatrends: “One is people’s willingness to adopt new skills for their current positions, what we refer to as upskilling. The other is their willingness to pick up new skills for a completely different job, commonly known as reskilling.”


Upskilling and reskilling for the post-pandemic world


During an economic downturn, training is often the first activity to be abandoned by companies in order to save money. Even during flush economic times, training is often given short shrift by companies. LeBleu believes the current situation, in which furloughed or fired employees are sheltering at home, is a good time to upskill or reskill. She writes, “More people are acquiring new skills from the comfort of their own homes than ever before. Online learning platforms like Coursera, Udacity, and EdX, for example, saw major spikes in course enrollment in March and April, much of it driven by workers at the direction of their employers.” Just prior to the onset of the pandemic, Lauren Weber (@laurenweberWSJ) reported some companies were “racing to offer new skills training for their employees.”[3]


Whether these efforts continue in the post-pandemic world remains to be seen. Another group of BCG analysts believes more needs to be done. They write, “Across the world, an unprecedented labor market shock has governments scrambling to preserve jobs. Their actions are critical — for now. But given the scale of the fallout, they are insufficient.”[4] The fact of the matter is all stakeholders (governments, employers, and employees) must do more to ensure jobs sustainability in the years ahead. The BCG analysts note, “Even before COVID-19 hit, countries faced a skills mismatch (the condition in which supply does not fit demand, whether in an organization, industry, region, or country). The pandemic makes the problem worse, potentially worsening productivity losses from 6% to 11% and resulting in unrealized GDP of $18 trillion by 2025, according to BCG analysis. This means governments must take action now — not only to address the short-term challenges but also to rebuild their human capital for the future.” McKinsey & Company analysts believe business leaders need to encourage and support continuous learning in their organizations. They write, “Continuous learning in the workplace must become the new norm if individuals and organizations want to stay ahead. This places more demand than ever on leaders to take on a new role they might initially find unfamiliar — that of learning facilitator-in-chief.”[5]


Digital skills for the digital age


BCG analysts note, “The sudden need to work remotely online has triggered the acquisition of digital skills at scale, offering professionals new opportunities for both enhanced careers and increased income.” At the time, they note, the work environment is changing so dramatically simply reskilling or upskilling won’t be enough. They explain, “To fix the skills mismatch, governments must address seven key challenges across three pillars that underpin a robust and productive workforce: capabilities (fundamental skill sets and lifelong employability), motivation (self-realization and a human-centric approach that treats people as equal partners in shaping society and the economy), and access (available opportunities, skills liquidity, and labor market inclusivity).” The pandemic lockdown has increased the importance of having access to broadband technologies. Many of the opportunities to reskill or upskill are now found online. Weber reports, “U.S. workers now have access to more than 738,000 secondary and postsecondary degrees, certificates, badges and other certifications, according to a 2019 report from Credential Engine, a nonprofit that aims to build a comprehensive registry of training options, along with data about their outcomes. The organization found that half of all credentials come from educational institutions, including traditional universities and community colleges. Nearly as many credentials are things like digital badges and online course certificates from nonacademic organizations, which have proliferated as providers see a lucrative and fast-growing market for professional training, fashionably known as reskilling and upskilling.”


LeBleu adds, “For people and organizations alike, perhaps the most important skill of all in the age of COVID-19 is adaptability.” According to BCG analysts, employees are willing to demonstrate adaptability. They write, “To excel in the future, people believe, they should master a mix of cognitive and interpersonal skills so that they can think analytically as well as communicate and collaborate with supervisors and coworkers. When they need training on new skills, they prefer to learn on the job, on their own, and through online classes and mobile apps to other, more traditional options. … If people feel that their livelihoods are affected by global megatrends, it follows that they are willing to devote time to learning new skills in order to stay relevant in their jobs.” McKinsey analysts add a note of caution. They write, “It’s harder to learn new things as an adult; the pain of making mistakes doesn’t roll off as quickly as it might have when we were younger.” As a result, they note, leaders must “foster an environment of psychological safety where employees are supported but still productively challenged.”


Concluding thoughts


BCG analysts conclude, “In the post-crisis world, governments that can adjust their skills landscapes and strengthen the future-readiness of their human capital will be able to unlock labor market opportunities and demonstrate that they can be leaders rather than followers. And they can help others learn from their example, working to unlock significant productivity and economic potential.” The same holds true for employers and employees. LeBleu concludes, “For business leaders, a readiness for reinvention will be the key to future success. Which is why now is the time to double down on digital transformation, sharpen your digital capabilities, and leave behind the legacy processes of the pre-pandemic era that stifle your organization’s ability to adapt.” As companies transform, they must also help their employees gain the skills they need to succeed in the Digital Age.


[1] Laura LeBleu, “New Skills For A New World,” Forbes, 30 May 2020.
[2] Orsolya Kovács-Ondrejkovic, Rainer Strack, Pierre Antebi, Ana López Gobernado, and Elizabeth Lyle, “Decoding Global Trends in Upskilling and Reskilling,” Boston Consulting Group, 5 November 2019.
[3] Lauren Weber, “Employers Want to Train Workers but Are Swimming in Options,” The Wall Street Journal, 7 January 2020.
[4] Leila Hoteit , Sergei Perapechka , Anton Stepanenko , and Maya El Hachem, “Governments Must Fix the Skills Mismatch for a Post-COVID World,” Boston Consulting Group, 18 May 2020.
[5] Staff, “Redefining the role of the leader in the reskilling era,” McKinsey Quarterly, 5 December 2019.