Imagine that you’re one of millions of people whose job is threatened by digital technology. You’re the compliance officer at a bank, an operations manager on an assembly line, a technical writer, a programming debugger, or a lighting coordinator for a photographer. Sometimes your job is so bound up in routine, you joke that it could be handled by a computer. Then the joke becomes reality. You are asked to help design the automated processes that will replace your position in a year.

You are shocked at first; then worried; and then, if you’re very lucky, you find out that an upskilling initiative has been set up in your company, perhaps in partnership with other organizations in your region. The initiative is made possible by advances in learning methods and analytics. It uses shared data about skills, tasks, and employment prospects to match people who would otherwise be laid off with new digitally oriented jobs and the training needed to fill them. To take a new job would mean changing roles, maybe changing companies, and undergoing an intensive 15-week training program. You talk it through with one of the initiative’s personal counselors, decide to apply for a position, and are accepted.

The training is tough, but your counselor keeps in touch with you throughout, offering encouragement and monitoring your progress. Around the seventh week, you meet with HR to discuss the on-boarding schedule. Then comes a three-month trial period in the new role, after which you are hired permanently. Your retirement and healthcare benefits carry over. You’re even paid a welcome bonus. You aren’t a layoff statistic; you are an example of the vital role upskilling will play in our turbulent digital economy.

Upskilling for the long run
The industrialized world is facing a skills crisis. On the one hand, automation is threatening many existing jobs. Hundreds of millions of young people around the world are coming of age and finding themselves unemployed and unemployable, while many older, long-established employees are discovering their jobs are becoming obsolete. A study published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2018 estimated that 46 percent of all jobs have at least a 50 percent chance of being lost or greatly changed. A 2016 report from the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity estimates that 30 percent of young adults will not graduate from secondary school with the skills they need to hold most jobs..
On the other hand, there is a severe shortage of qualified talent for the new digital economy. Jobs requiring knowledge of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and the Internet of Things are going unfilled in ever-greater numbers. Estimates suggest that U.S. software-related jobs (pdf) are growing at 6.5 percent annually — almost twice the rate of jobs in general — and that in Europe, there will be a high-tech skills gap of more than 500,000 unfilled positions by 2020.

Together, these two trends have broadened the gap between the employees of the present and the workforce of the future — hence the recent interest in upskilling. The term upskilling refers to the expansion of people’s capabilities and employability to fulfill the talent needs of a rapidly changing economy. An upskilling initiative can take place at the level of a company, an industry, or a community.

Upskilling is not the same as reskilling, a term associated with short-term efforts undertaken for specific groups (for example, retraining steelworkers in air-conditioning repair or locksmithing). Reskilling doesn’t help much if there are too few well-paying jobs available for the retrained employees. An upskilling effort, by contrast, is a comprehensive initiative to convert applicable knowledge into productive results — not just to have people meet classroom requirements, but to have them move into new jobs and excel at them. It involves identifying the skills that will be most valuable in the future, the businesses that will need them, the people who need work and could plausibly gain those skills, and the training and technology-enabled learning that could help them — and then putting all these elements together.

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