Reskilling Leaves Some Workers Behind

Reskilling efforts fell short for those whose employment was most affected by the pandemic.

By Alexander Alonso August 23, 2021
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​For the past 20 years, we’ve heard about the great skills gap and how it continues to widen. For example, nearly 7 million U.S. workers require full-blown reskilling if they hope to remain employable after automation impacts their industry, according to research from the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board. (SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, was a board member.) This skills gap is so pervasive that no single solution will mitigate its impact.

Many employers provide meaningful learning opportunities to workers, with HR often taking the lead. Organizations, including the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Apple and Google, have sought to democratize reskilling by generating paths for people to earn new credentials for relevant skills. All told, more than 70,000 organizations in the U.S., including colleges and universities, nonprofits, public-private consortia, and foundations, are tackling the skills gap. And in 2019, these efforts made a dent, with more than 2 million people reskilling or upskilling across various channels that year.

Then COVID-19 took over the world. The number of people seeking reskilling or upskilling shot up by nearly 300 million worldwide, according to the International Labor Organization, and nearly 198 million workers were left unemployed.

Organizations seeking to reskill the workforce went into overdrive, offering democratized learning opportunities or post-employment career recovery programs. All of these efforts begged one question, though: Did we succeed at reimagining and reskilling the global workforce?

Reskilling infographic

Recent SHRM research on career development sheds light on this issue. As is always the case, the solution depends on how you look at the problem. However, one thing is abundantly clear: Reskilling efforts missed the mark for those whose employment was most affected by the pandemic.

People who were unemployed or furloughed were less likely to be able to afford reskilling opportunities. Overall, 55 percent of unemployed U.S. workers polled said costs were prohibitive; 45 percent of furloughed workers said the same. Only 34 percent of employed workers said cost was their primary obstacle to reskilling.

Perhaps the biggest reskilling miss is the rate at which workers have been taking advantage of reskilling or learning opportunities. A majority of all U.S. workers surveyed, both employed and unemployed, reported seeking additional career development or reskilling opportunities, and 3 out of 4 reported wanting to engage in such activities. Fewer than 4 in 10 have been able to do so, however.

Why? The answer is simple: Those who need it can’t access it, and those who can access it can’t use it. For instance, unemployed hourly workers are less likely to pursue reskilling opportunities because they don’t have an employer to cover or reimburse the costs. Employed salaried workers are the least likely to access reskilling tools, despite having access to them, because they simply don’t have the time after picking up new responsibilities amid significant furloughing.

Employers are increasingly entrusted with the well-being of their workforces. But the ability of leaders to execute on this charge calls for a deeper understanding of workers’ context-driven career development. If we neglect that, we risk failing an entire generation of workers.  

Alexander Alonso, SHRM-SCP, is chief knowledge officer for SHRM.

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