By Kevin Juhasz for Galvanize
The word has only been around since the late 1970s, but upskilling has been around for centuries. Humans have been discovering or creating new ways to do things for as long as humans have existed. Each new discovery or invention leads to the need for people to learn.
The one difference has been the rate we’ve had to upskill, which began to tick up around the time of the first industrial revolution in the mid-1700s. Technology has been a contributor to making changes happen at an ever-increasing rate, so the need to upskill and the ways humans have had to upskill are happening faster than ever.
“It has spanned every industry since the industrial revolution, if not before,” said Jake Hirsch-Allen, incoming board member of the Information and Communications Technology Council. “I think that’s an important perspective for us to bear in mind at a time when everybody says things are changing dramatically. Certainly, the pace of change has been accelerated by the pandemic itself, but the kind of change is actually much more normal than many people are describing as being. The need to upskill or reskill is actually relatively universal.”
In the past, upskilling was a bit easier because the technological changes weren’t as rapid, giving society the time and ability to adjust. That’s not the case anymore, and it hasn’t been for a while. Technology is evolving faster, and tech is helping with the acceleration. In fact, it might be best to apply the brakes a little bit.
“There are some areas where we need to slow down because we’re hurting ourselves from a mental health perspective to a macro-economic perspective more than we’re helping,” Hirsch-Allen said.
Even with every industry having upskilled or needing to upskill, there are companies that have dealt with it better than others. Tech companies, such as Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft, usually work better at upskilling because their industry deals with changes much more.
Hirsch-Allen said that Microsoft and IBM are two companies that have done a great job over the years of not just upskilling their own workforces, but also made moves to help the nation’s workforce as a whole move toward corporate digital training.
“Microsoft has done a remarkable job of transforming itself over the past few years from being a company that was sales- and IT-focused…to one that has adapted to focus on skills and education on technology as a means of increasing accessibility and inclusion,” he explained.
Even if a company deals with technology on a regular basis, it still takes some foresight to make sure any of them are prepared to make changes. It’s companies that take a look down the road, as best they can, that can make the transition to upskilling easier. Joe Mullings, Chairman and CEO of The Mullings Group Companies, thinks AT&T is an example of having that vision. He explained that AT&T began looking at the need to upskill more than a decade ago and began putting things in place to make sure they could bring their workforce up to speed on the changes that have taken place since.
“Somebody who was brilliant at AT&T clearly realized that the acceleration of technology was not going to slow down anytime soon, and they’d better drive a culture of employee empowerment and upskilling,” said Mullings. “This way they could keep their workforce prepared.”
Unfortunately, there are industries and companies that have not fared as well. One of the issues is size. Hirsch-Allen explained that small-to-medium size businesses tend to have a more difficult time upskilling their staff. Some of that has to do with cost, some of it has to do with the ability to prepare their staff and companies to make the changes.
The Covid-19 pandemic has only heightened the awareness of the need to upskill, especially in areas where upskilling was typically less common. Many of these are industries that didn’t have to previously deal with as much tech are now forced to do quick upskilling in order to cope with the changing environment. These include healthcare, retail and grocery, and hospitality. Keenan thinks that pharmacists are one area that could do a better job of embracing tech.
“They could play a much bigger role in health care if they had better tech skills,” he said. “There are now pills that send a signal when they have been taken. Doctors are too busy to pay attention to this data, but tech-savvy pharmacists could play a role.”
One industry that failed to pivot rapidly as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic was the entertainment industry, said Thomas Keenan, author of Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy.
“They basically shut down production or, in a few cases, moved to animation,” he said. “Only now are they figuring out how to produce content without dozens or hundreds of people in the same place.”
The way companies have approached upskilling is also a factor in whether they’ll achieve success. Many companies do not wish to invest in the training, which has to be worked into budgets and produce a return on investment. This has led to them seeking a workforce that is ready-to-go upon hiring.
In fact, some companies may be better looking in other industries for people who already have several of the skills needed and just require minor upskilling to achieve success. Hirsch-Allen gave an example of the oil industry in Texas. It’s unreasonable to expect their jobs to remain solid forever. The skills they’ve acquired in their industry would work well in areas such as healthcare with a minimal amount of upskilling.
“I think we have this idea that a completely fluid labor market means that people are disposable,” Hirsch-Allen explained. “The problem with that is not just that it’s inhumane to some extent, but also that those people could be much more valuable in your company if you were putting resources in them rather than putting resources into a cycle of hiring and firing.”
Simply setting up programs for upskilling is not enough to prepare employees for change. Companies have to have workers that are willing to go along with those changes, and many people are resistant, having an attitude that they just have to do the job they are currently doing.
“You’ve got to be looking at personalities that will actually embrace that agility and ongoing personal development and know that they’re taking a job today that in five years, they probably won’t be in,” Mullings explained. “There are some people that are lifelong learners and look forward to that, and there are others that are like, ‘I’m not getting paid to learn, I’m getting paid to do this job.’”
There are signs that more workers today are realizing on their own that ongoing job education is vital. Hirsch-Allen said upskilling services are seeing an increased usage nationwide.
“A lot of that is people taking it on themselves to learn,” he said