The COVID-19 crisis has rewritten the playbook on upskilling

Els Howard and Parves Khan discuss the importance of upskilling during a pandemic.

As the Covid-19 pandemic ensues and businesses across the UK batten down the hatchet, there is a huge risk that upskilling initiatives will be deprioritised. Yet safeguarding and recreating jobs through targeted upskilling and reskilling will be critical for the nation’s economic recovery and building its resilience to future shocks – this can’t be overstated.

In the immediate term, many employers still need to fill critical skill gaps fast to keep business running – either by upskilling existing staff or reskilling them to work in another part of the business. And when the economy reopens, the need to redeploy and reskill displaced workers won’t be just an economic imperative it’ll be a moral one too.

When people are stripped of their work, they suffer losses not just of income and their purchasing power, but also of dignity, meaning, and hope.

Rather than press the pause button on closing skill gaps, this crisis has created an unprecedented urgency to ramp up upskilling interventions. But not in ways we thought so previously. COVID-19 is rewriting the playbook on upskilling.

Here are four shifts we expect to see shaping the way we think about workforce upskilling right now.

Collaboration not competition

Pre Covid-19, work based learning was a source of competitive advantage – companies that invested in developing workforce in-demand skills beat the competition and thrived, those that didn’t faltered.

With the pace of change, the shelf life of many technical skills is shortening rapidly.

Now, businesses are operating in a very different societal and economic environment. Given the enormity of the challenge to get our economies back on track – companies that would otherwise be business competitors will need to work together with governments and learning providers to deliver public/private backed upskilling the reskilling opportunities to get people rapidly back into jobs.

Accenture recently described this collaboration as building ‘shared workforce resilience’.

Whilst the current context is unique, this level of collaboration is not unheard of. An example of where this has already been done is Singapore’s SkillsFuture initiative. Launched in 2015, this coordinated effort between government, industry and learning providers was set up to create upskilling pathways for Singaporeans to employment that are industry aligned to meet specific skill needs.

Sprints not marathons

Time is of the essence. The need to rapidly get people back into jobs, particularly areas where there are short term demand surges – think grocery retail and health services, in turn, call for upskilling and reskilling interventions that are much shorter, faster, and cheaper than before.

Whilst social distancing created the imminent challenge of reimagining how to deliver learning experiences remotely, examples of necessity borne pivoting demonstrates what’s possible, when we have to.

One example is the rapid conversion of the exhibition and international convention centre ExCel in London into a critical care hospital for coronavirus patients.

This was only possible as a result of the rapid upskilling of hundreds of staff and volunteers to support critical care clinicians delivered through a partnership between the NHS, universities, and training providers from across the country over the course of a few weeks.


This nimbleness is also needed in longer term upskilling and reskilling programmes that enables individuals to move into careers aligned with future-skill trends in the post COVID-19 world. In the current context of flux and uncertainty, it’s easy to forget that behind the scenes, technology continues to advance forward,

With the pace of change, the shelf life of many technical skills is shortening rapidly. Around 40% of skills required for a given role is expected to be obsolete within a few years.

Mastery not pedigree

The temporal and on-demand nature of these skills will likewise need speedier forms of accreditation to show mastery.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability to pick up new skill sets, and the speed at which one can apply them to work was becoming an increasingly important factor in one’s employability.

This has been reflected in the growth of new professionally-oriented credential offerings in recent years – ranging from coding bootcamps, to digital badges, nanodegrees and Micromasters. We expect this type of credentialing to accelerate as more and more employers judge and employ people based on their ability.

In the future workplace a greater proportion of jobs will rely on soft skills, to perform and the results they can generate – rather than focus just on their employment history and formal education.


We can look to Australia for a current example here – the federal government has provided a selection of universities with funding to rapidly develop six-month diploma-style certified courses in key growth sectors like health, science and IT to quickly reskill people into new roles. The courses will be heavily discounted to encourage uptake.

Smart learning not just learning

One of the challenges with any upskilling programme is ensuring that the know-what and know-how is directly relevant to work, that the learner retains what’s been learnt and can immediately apply it.

In the current context, no one can afford to invest time and effort in ineffectual learning. So what works best for learning? In our digital ‘always on’ world, the preference for learning as needed, any time, any where, means online will still be the delivery mode of choice.

Online learning programmes were already on the rise before COVID-19 struck, and has seen a substantial increase since, but so has dissatisfaction. Greater usage has also led to greater exposure of the gaps in online learning experiences.

Merely putting PowerPoint decks and other static materials online as a substitute for in-person training will not suffice. Let’s take video as an example – we already know from Philip Guo’s study of MOOC videos that attention levels rapidly drop after around 6 minutes – yet many training videos continue to be up to an hour in length.

For online learning to succeed, we need to harness the insights of learning science to better understand what works and what doesn’t and there’s no shortage of research to get one started.

Building future-facing solutions

The employment impacts of COVID-19 will be deep, far-reaching and unprecedented. As we try to make sense of the implications of the massive dislocation and disruption of the labour market, we have shared our analysis of how we think the crisis will shape approaches to upskilling and reskilling in the UK.

Whilst no one really knows for sure what the new normal will be like once we come out of this crisis – given the fluid nature of the context we now live in, there is one thing we do know. Resilient economies are those that have a skilled and highly adaptable labour force.

Before the pandemic struck – we talked about skills being the currency of the future. They still are but Covid-19 has added another layer of complexity.


About the authors

Els Howard is Vice President of Enterprise & Institution Research & Innovation and Dr Parves Khan is Global Research Director at Pearson.


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