Report: Pandemic Drives Workers' Desire to Learn New Job Skills

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek June 16, 2021
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​Reduced work hours. Job loss. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted workers' lives, causing a good many of them to think about acquiring new skills to prepare for the future, according to a recent global report.

More than two-thirds of 208,807 workers from 190 countries want to learn skills for new roles that offer more job security and opportunity. And more than one-third of workers globally were laid off or had to accept reduced working time because of business closures or slowdowns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the study by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and The Network.

Interest in retraining overall is highest—70 percent—among people who lost the most income during the pandemic. Among those in the travel and tourism industry, 68 percent globally have been laid off or had their hours cut.

There also is concern by people in some professions—particularly among customer service workers and those who hold white-collar jobs such as auditing, HR and administration—that automation will threaten their jobs, according to the report. That concern is shared by people working in media and information and by manual and manufacturing workers. The speed of change in IT and technology also is cause for concern for people in those fields, the report said.

The findings are from a survey conducted October to December 2020. More than 6,300 respondents were workers in the U.S. Among all global respondents, most were 20 to 40 years old, in the early to middle stages of their careers and working primarily in commercial industries. Nearly three-fourths had a college degree, and slightly more than half did not have management responsibilities. BCG also conducted follow-up Zoom interviews with some respondents.

This overall attitude toward reskilling "may set the stage for vast workplace changes after the pandemic ends," BCG and The Network write in Decoding Global Reskilling and Career Paths. "The interest in switching careers is tied to both the disruptions of COVID-19 and the threat of technological change, which many workers believe is accelerating." 

In the U.S., 89 percent of respondents said they are willing to reskill for a new job; of those, 39 percent would retrain if their current job depended upon it.

Workers in telecommunications (68 percent) topped the list of respondents from among 15 industries most willing to retrain. They were followed by workers in travel and tourism (61 percent), financial institutions (60 percent), and consumer products and services (58 percent). 

Workers have to prep "for meaningful and challenging tasks that require higher-level skills," explained Dimitris Tsingos, CEO and co-founder of Epignosis, a global learning technology provider headquartered in San Francisco. Artificial intelligence trends, such as automation, are promising more streamlined processes that will cut down the time people need to spend on some tasks while allowing more time for learning. 

"And to obtain those skills, people need to start learning again," Tsingos said. 

Digital and information technology jobs topped respondents' new-job wish list, especially for workers who lost jobs or had reduced hours during the pandemic. Data scientists and user experience designers and other users of specialized technology have been in higher demand by employers and have been working longer hours, the report noted.

People were willing to retrain mostly within similar job families; for example, engineering is the top choice of manual workers interested in preparing for another field. Social workers and health care workers can see themselves entering each other's domains. And office and management jobs such as consulting, marketing and HR are seen as attractive job possibilities, "possibly because of the perceived ease of the transition into those jobs for a variety of workers," the report said.

Other findings from the survey:

  • The pandemic has been hardest on workers younger than 20 and for those with no more than a high school education. Many of these workers held sales, restaurant and customer service jobs, which don't involve long-term contracts and are easily terminated.
  • Workers in African countries—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast—where companies started automating more jobs during the pandemic show the highest interest in retraining. 
  • European respondents, by comparison, were less worried about automation impacting their jobs. The report suggests that likely is because in European countries such as Denmark, The Netherlands and France, labor laws may give workers a sense that their jobs will be protected or they will be given time to find new jobs in their field.

Seeking Training

Almost 7 in 10 people said they are open to switching to completely different job roles, but Tsingos said employees may want to consider upskilling, instead of reskilling, so they are able to perform their jobs at a higher level and advance their careers. However, they must be strategic in how they request training, he pointed out. They should:

  • Put their request in writing, such as in an e-mail. It gives the request a more formal tone and shows that the employee has put thought into the request.
  • In the absence of in-house training, suggest a few training sources for the skills they want to learn. This illustrates that the employee is serious about the request and helps speed the approval process.
  • Make clear to their manager how the training they want will contribute to reaching the department's goals and meeting the organization's business needs.
  • Seize the moment; do not wait until a formal performance review to request training.

Creating a Learning Culture

Employers, too, must create a culture that promotes training and development, according to the report, by:

  • Demonstrating that the organization values learning. One way to do this, Tsingos said, is by recognizing knowledge "blind spots'' that employees may not be aware they have and addressing deficiencies with refresher training. He pointed to a TalentLMS survey of 1,200 cybersecurity employees that found 61 percent of employees who have undergone employer cybersecurity training failed a basic cybersecurity quiz. 

Employers can also invest in modern IT systems that support learning or subsidize learning that requires employees to be away from their jobs, incorporate learning metrics into performance evaluations, and have executives serve as learning role models.

  • Offer a menu of learning courses. On-the-job training—including coaching and job rotation—and independent study are the most popular approaches to workplace learning, the survey found.

  • Emphasize self-driven, on-the-job learning methods so employees use what they learn in their daily workflow. Apprenticeships and micro-learning apps that incorporate virtual coaching or gamification are a few ways to do this. Online education also is gaining traction.

About two-thirds of workers surveyed spent a few weeks or more on improving their skills in the last year; 48 percent used a mobile app in 2020 versus 36 percent who used this learning method in 2018. Almost half turned to online education, such as digital academics and massive open online courses, the survey found.

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