Covid-19: The Growing Importance of Upskilling and Reskilling
Covid-19: The Growing Importance of Upskilling and Reskilling

Companies around the world are facing an uphill task of upskilling and reskilling their workforce quickly and effectively amid the business shifts and new environment resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Businesses across a range of sectors are facing losses, with millions of workers in danger of losing their jobs. At the same time, companies have been forced to move their operations to the digital domain practically overnight, often resulting in a massive skill gap.

This is a unique scenario, according to Anand Chopra-McGowan, VP and Managing Director of the education organisation General Assembly, and Srinivas Reddy, Chief of Skills and Employability Branch at the UN International Labour Organization. On the one hand there are millions unemployed, with rapidly evolving and growing skills needs on the other, they observe in an article in the World Economic Forum.

The rise of technology in corporate learning

The need to reskill employees is no longer just a recommendation, but a necessary step to economic recovery, the authors argue. The good news is that some investments in upskilling are already being planned. Companies like Amazon, French telecoms giant Orange, and PricewaterhouseCoopers have pledged millions to help their workforce build new skills.

Further good news, not mentioned by Chopra-McGowan and Reddy, is the growing availability and capability of technology and the increasing willingness of companies to utilise it for reskilling and upskilling purposes. For example, several Fortune 500 companies, such as Boeing, UPS, and Walmart, are using virtual reality (VR) technology for employee education programmes. In Walmart’s case, employees are using VR to improve customer service and compliance. The world’s biggest retailer discovered early that the VR programme engages workers unlike anything it has tried before.

But it is not only VR that is transforming the training industry at an accelerated pace. Artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), and machine learning are also contributing significantly to this change. Cutting-edge corporate training technologies allow learners to better understand and remember information, use their newly developed skills immediately, and follow up to guarantee quality knowledge sharing. Technology, coupled with proficient instructors and the teaching expertise of academic institutions, can make sessions more effective and results much more visible.

L&D departments may not be able to keep up with the pace of digitalisation without expert help. Asked what the biggest challenge was to developing high-quality virtual programmes, 21% of respondents pointed to technology, according to a 2020 survey of over 60 global L&D leaders conducted by IE University. L&D leaders may need to engage outside vendors such as academic institutions to effectively deploy digital solutions.

Read: The State of L&D: Budget Cuts, Digitisation, Collaboration (Survey Results)

What is reskilling?

Chopra-McGowan and Reddy make a point of clarifying what reskilling is by citing Glenda Quintini, a senior economist at OECD: “It’s not just about a medium of learning but rather about learning in service of an outcome, which is usually the successful transition into a new job or the ability to successfully take on new tasks.


In a paper published recently, Quintini and her colleagues define three formats in which reskilling can take place:

  • Formal learning (college, university, business school)
  • Non-formal learning (learning activities that don’t result in a certificate organised by corporate L&D professionals or other providers)
  • Informal learning (learning from colleagues, supervisors, etc.)

Investment structure

Last year, a paper from the World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that the cost of reskilling is approximately USD 24,800 per person in the United States. Of course, this estimate varies significantly based on the occupation and job function. The authors of the article argue that this investment should be covered jointly by employees, employers, and governments, because each of them benefits.

How long does it take to acquire new skills?

The speed of acquiring a new skill depends on many factors, such as personal learning style, prior preparation or experience, and learning format, to name a few. As an example, Chopra-McGowan points to General Assembly’s “Immersives”, full-time courses that are designed to help participants gain skills to get jobs in technology, data, and other digital roles. These courses typically take 480 hours of live instruction, either online or in a physical classroom, and are designed for participants with no prior experience in the field. Between 2018 and 2019, about 90% of graduates from this programme landed a job within six months of graduating, suggesting that the length was enough for building new skills.

Can reskilling be made available to all?

The authors of the article put forward three policies that governments and labour organisations can use to make reskilling available to all.

Create and empower tripartite sector skills councils (SSCs). SSCs are non-profit organisations focused on helping a single industry sector define and close its skills gaps.

Support small businesses. Small to medium enterprises (SMEs) often need more financial and technical resources to reskill their employees. Support from the public sector is vital.

Make reskilling more accessible to individual employees. All employees should have access to some kind of career development support, funded through a mix of personal contributions, employer investment, and state sponsorship.

Initiatives like these, the authors say, will help overcome the growing economic crisis and pave the way for a more resilient and stable world of work.

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