It's undeniable: COVID-19 has accelerated the need for upskilling. In order to maintain their employability, people need to upskill more quickly than before; they need to reskill; they need to add more skills. And this is the case across almost all industries, even traditional ones such as banking, or labor-intensive ones such as agriculture. Somewhere, in some way, some segment of the industry or the company will be changing, and people will have to find a way to keep up.
"As we go forward, we're going to see a lot more people asking for support to reskill," says Philippa Penfold, co-founder of HR education firm People Collider. Speaking on a Tigerhall panel about upskilling, she points out that HR will need to evolve to meet this demand—whether by familiarizing themselves with the nature of job functions and the skills thereby needed, or simply by understanding how to deal with the barriers involved.
Time is the real bottom line
From a business perspective, money is the bottom line when it comes to investing in upskilling. But from the individual employee's perspective, time is the real obstacle to improving their skills, and it is also why so many people appear, from the organizational point of view, to be uninterested in upskilling.
"More than money, I find time to be the barrier to upskilling and reskilling," says Ruchika Sharma, Lead—Learning Technology at Amazon Web Services. "And it's a much more difficult conversation to have than money."
Speaking on the same panel as Penfold, Sharma pointed out that the majority of business leaders do actually understand the importance of upskilling and are ready and willing to invest in it. But even as their wallets become looser, their employees' time is becoming tighter, especially during the current economic situation as organizations shed manpower and resources.
"The biggest challenge for leaders is that the here and now is so compelling, that the significant investment of time that is needed to create real change in skills profiles is very hard," Sharma says.
"There's no lack of content, no lack of specialists. It's about time."
And it's not that the need for time has not emerged in other conversations. Protected learning time is a common practice in healthcare, and in other industries, various studies have suggested that carving out protected time specifically for learning during the working day can have a significant impact on the success of learning programs. For example, one survey by the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work found that having more working hours devoted to training is the top factor that will help employees learn more effectively.
It's hard to learn during a crisis
"More than the financial cost, it's cost of head space," says Penfold. "We know that this time is not just the time to do the task, it's the time to reflect and absorb. We cannot learn in a time of stress."
And certainly, during a crisis when the economy is slumping and job security is uncertain, most people are not in the head space to learn, she points out: "Pushing people to do more with less, working crazy hours even if we are at home...The cost to learn is a lot more than the financial or monetary cost, and we really need to address that if we want to develop a growth mindset in our people."
The rapid pace of change compounds this difficulty. As businesses transform and digitalize, it's not entirely certain which of a person's skills are still relevant, which ones need to be upgraded, and what new skills to be added. On the surface, the hype around coding languages, digital marketing, AI, and other jazzy new areas might put these skills at the top of everyone's minds, but are these really what people require for their work?
One obvious solution is that employers need to be upfront about what skills they need, so that employees can actually seek out those skills. Or, employees need to have a clear idea of what they want to add to themselves in their own space. People will be far more motivated to acquire a particular skill or piece of knowledge when they have clarity on how that skill or knowledge is relevant to their job. "There are more IT people wanting to learn about HR, than there are HR people wanting to learn about IT," Penfold quips.
Learning does not have results overnight
"We all inherently know that learning isn't this linear process that leads to an immediate outcome," says Amazon's Ruchika Sharma. One issue with the way managers and even leaders approach learning, she believes, is that they expect instant returns.
As Penfold puts it: "We have this idea in business where we put money in and get results...but with people, things are not so cut and dried." Just as it's not reasonable for an individual employee to expect a higher salary immediately after they complete training, it's also not reasonable for managers to expect improved outcomes immediately after the training. "We need to change this idea in managers' heads that A leads to B and we'll get it done in a quarter."
A more realistic and robust timeline, Sharma suggests, might be as long as six to nine months: collecting data, tracking outcomes, and finding a link to the upskilling initiatives. Having that solid, long-term track record will do a great deal to prove the effectiveness of upskilling or reskilling, both from an organizational and an individual perspective.
Where's a good place to start?
Penfold and Sharma suggested three steps individuals can take to deal with the obstacles to their learning and upskilling:
1. Look at where you can carve out your time for learning. Working from home makes this more practicable, because we have much more control over our time when we are not bound by the office environment.
2. Plan what to do with that time. A good starting point is to ask your manager what to work on, and possibly even ask for recommendations for free courses and resources in order to move the conversation away from cost.
3. Actually carry out the plan. Attempt to form a habit of carving out the time and actively using it to learn.