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The case for upskilling

Dec 03, 2020

Upskilling your people is the only way to cope with the future. By nurturing your workforce’s talents, explain Ciara Fallon and Ger Twomey, you will have a distinct edge over the competition.

While the future of work is a topic that dominates the current business agenda, there appears to be a lack of momentum in making the necessary investments to implement effective workforce strategies. CEOs need to act now and plan how their businesses will upskill their people to thrive in a digital world.

By now, we all recognise and understand that COVID-19 has fundamentally changed how people work, where they work, and what skills they require. The rapid move to a predominantly virtual working world exposed gaps in the capabilities of many organisations and their people.

This is an issue that leaders were already struggling with before the pandemic. PwC’s Talent Trends 2020, based on survey data from late 2019, showed that 74% of CEOs were concerned about the availability of critical skills.

But, just as the pandemic highlighted the biggest skills mismatches between organisations and their people, it provides an opportunity for CEOs to develop strategies to build the workforce they need for the future. And, given the urgency to find the right talent with the right cultural fit, more and more companies are realising the benefits of upskilling the people they already have.

The acceleration of new ways of working makes it clear that upskilling people should not be a sideshow to other efforts CEOs are making to stay solvent and recover from the economic disruption caused by COVID-19. Upskilling should be a priority in a world where the speed of change is unprecedented, and the path ahead is uncertain. Here are four areas for CEOs to focus on to make the case for upskilling.

1. Deliver on business strategy

When we asked more than 22,000 employees around the world about their hopes and fears for work, more than three-quarters said they wanted to improve their skills. Now is the perfect opportunity for leaders to take advantage of their people’s aspiration and align it with their upskilling initiatives and business goals.

That means assessing your staff’s skills, particularly in relation to technology and other crucial skills such as problem-solving and working effectively in cross-functional teams. The CEO may need some upskilling too.

2. Prioritise employee engagement and experience

There’s a measurable connection between successful upskilling and employee engagement. Among the CEOs who took part in the latest PwC Annual Global CEO Survey who had introduced an upskilling programme, 60% said it was highly effective in improving culture and employee engagement. And according to Gallup, highly engaged business units have lower rates of absenteeism (-41%) and higher rates of productivity (+17%).

3. Boost productivity

Companies are expected to spend close to US$4 trillion globally this year on technology. If upskilling is done well, the digital, human and commercial capability uplift in your workforce will bring about greater use of new tools and enabling technologies, such as robotic process automation or artificial intelligence.

By focusing the efforts of your workforce on value-add and enriching activities, and away from repetitive and routine tasks, you unlock greater value – such as stronger connections with customers, better innovation, or process efficiencies. 

4. Embrace a growth mindset

Upskilling is a medium- to long-term strategy. We live in a world beset by disruptions that will continue beyond this pandemic. The megatrends PwC has identified as critical challenges for the 21st century – such as the speed of technological change – require an agile workforce and agile management. Being prepared to weather crises with a flexible, knowledgeable workforce and a culture built on resilience will stand you in good stead.

CEOs should lead with a growth mindset. They should encourage their workforce to evolve. They can start by upskilling personally and communicating what they are doing to their people. This doesn’t necessarily mean learning to code, but it does mean understanding what new technologies can do and what they can’t.

Savvy leaders who value and nurture their workforce’s innate talents, ability to learn, and desire to do good work will have a greater chance of boosting their business and retaining and attracting talent. They will beat the skills gap.

Ciara Fallon and Ger Twomey are Directors of PwC People and Organisation.