The facts are staggering: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate, at 14.7%, is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. In just eight weeks, 36 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact business operations globally, companies’ bottom lines and employees’ livelihoods are both in jeopardy.

Now more than ever, “We need to be upskilling ourselves every single day,” says Sonia Malik, learning strategist at IBM Training and Skills. Upskilling and reskilling initiatives can give employees the tools they need to drive business outcomes and can help laid-off or furloughed employees land their next role.

A Competitive Edge

Massive layoffs and furloughs have forced many employees into a dismal job market: Airbnb announced it is laying off 1,900 employees (about 25% of its workforce), United Airlines said it plans to lay off around 3,400 employees (at least 30% of its workforce), Lyft is laying off 982 employees and furloughing another 288 (17% of its workforce), and many other companies have made similar announcements.

Upskilling displaced workers can “give them a competitive edge in today’s uncertain business environment and in tomorrow’s future of work,” says Yael Gilboa, co-founder and chief operating officer of Learn In, an upskilling-as-a-service platform. Digital skills like software engineering, data analytics and data science are especially in demand and are applicable across many disciplines, she says. In addition to technical skills, research from The Conference Board found that soft skills such as compassion, empathy, coaching and creativity can “support competitiveness” in today’s digital environment, says Lori Esposito Murray, president of The Conference Board’s committee for economic development. After all, these skills are “innately human” and, therefore, less likely to be automated away. Malik agrees “foundational skills” like communication, problem-solving and creativity are a valuable addition to any employee’s toolbox.

Although in-person instructor-led training (ILT) programs are largely inaccessible right now, there are myriad ways learning leaders can teach these skills virtually. For example, a Stanford study found that virtual reality (VR) can “help make people more compassionate” and empathic, and there are numerous mobile learning platforms on the market that teach technical skills like data analytics.

In reality, many of the workers impacted by COVID-19 were “already vulnerable to automation” and technological disruption, Murray says. A report by The Center for Employment Equity at the University of Massachusetts Amherst explains, “Like normal recessions, it is the most insecure families who will be hit the hardest by the COVID-19 recession. Unlike other recessions, it is the service sector jobs that will be shed first.” Upskilling these employees can help them “re-find their footing” in an industry with greater job security and higher pay, Murray says.

Gilboa says that many middle-skilled roles are “more relevant today than ever,” such as health care practitioners and technicians. When upskilling displaced workers, “The key is to recognize those roles that offer career advancement and can last a lifetime.” In collaboration with a group of major U.S. employers, for instance, Guild Education’s recently launched Next Chapter platform is designed to help laid-off or furloughed workers identify and train for in-demand roles in areas like health care, technology and the skilled trades.

Laid-off or furloughed employees are not the only ones who should focus on upskilling during the pandemic: Learning and development (L&D) professionals, as well as workers across industries, should “use this time to seize the opportunity to invest in themselves and their own professional development” Gilboa says.

The Business Case for Upskilling

Businesses may be tempted to cut back on L&D to preserve cash during the pandemic. However, in doing so, they’re depriving their employees of the very tools and skills that could help their business survive the crisis. A McKinsey report notes, “Now is the time for companies to double down on their learning budgets and commit to reskilling. Developing this muscle will also strengthen companies for future disruptions.” Malik agrees upskilling initiatives will help companies “strengthen their workforce” and, consequently, strengthen and prepare their business to compete in the post-pandemic economy.

In many ways, the pandemic has “accelerated the future of work,” Malik says. More employees are working remotely than ever before, virtual collaboration tools have largely replaced traditional “water cooler” conversations and developing an agile workforce is no longer optional. If organizations want to “survive and recover” from the pandemic, “Their workforce needs to have the skills necessary to adapt to change,” Malik says. Businesses should conduct regular skills assessments to identify skills gaps and then select and implement training initiatives to fill them. Thankfully, on today’s market, “A plethora of high-quality, low-cost education options are broadly available,” Gilboa says, such as massive open online courses (MOOCs), intensive skills bootcamps and more.

In the end, upskilling during the pandemic benefits all involved. It offers a “glimmer of hope” that both employees and organizations can prepare to compete and succeed in the post-pandemic economy, Murray says.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect Yael Gilboa’s correct gender and Learn In’s correct spelling and offering. 

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