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Upskilling to meet the challenges of the future of work

Technology was reshaping the world of work well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But climate change now poses an even greater challenge, and governments and businesses alike must prepare for it by implementing training programs to equip employees with future work skills.

Albert Einstein said the measure of intelligence is the ability to change, and our capacity in that area is certainly being tested. Even before COVID-19 arrived, advances in technology were reshaping the future of employment, and the pandemic has greatly accelerated the transformation. But more important now is the looming climate emergency. As we begin to see clear evidence of the effects of global warming on countries and communities, the need to revise our current industrial model is undeniable and urgent.

There will be a lot of uncertainty and some job losses as we transition – the emergence of AI has already made some roles redundant, and more will follow. But there will also be many opportunities. 

New developments such as remote working and e-commerce will continue to offer occasions for growth. But to keep pace with technology and the shift towards sustainability, both governments and businesses will need to upskill and reskill their workforces.

Upskilling means increasing the skills and knowledge an employee already has in a certain area to a new level, so they become more skilled and relevant in their role within the company, while reskilling involves learning new skills so they can do a different job. 

According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020, half of all employees around the world will need reskilling by 2025 – and that number does not even include all the people who are currently not in employment.

The Great Resignation

Much has been reported of late about the so-called Great Resignation, a substantial wave of workers who are leaving their jobs, prompted by the current high number of vacancies and burnout caused by the pandemic. In the light of COVID-19 and the climate emergency, it seems many are rethinking their lives and their priorities.

IN THE PIPELINE: Upskilling and reskilling programs give companies the chance to retain valued employees.

This trend may sometimes be overstated, but it is certainly an issue for companies and managers. Almost 4 million people in the U.S. quit their jobs in April – the highest number since government record-keeping for labor turnover began in December 2000.

Offering opportunities to upskill and reskill can play a big part in helping companies hold on to valued employees. 

In a recent blogpost Michael Park, who co-leads the People & Organizational Performance Practice at consulting giants McKinsey, commented: “The role of the company in people’s lives has changed. It’s now about thinking how to be the place people “want” to work versus “have” to work, and a big part of that is creating a culture of learning and adaptability so people have the skills required to perform their jobs within the company – and for when they leave.”

Fortunately, upskilling and reskilling current workers is significantly cheaper than having to find someone else for the role. Research by Gallup has revealed that the cost of replacing an individual employee can range from one and a half to two times their annual salary – and that’s a conservative estimate. 

Company investment in future workforces

So, what are the world’s leading companies doing in this area? Technology giant IBM has announced its commitment to upskill 30 million people globally by 2030 with more than 170 new academic and industry partnerships. And in 2019, professional services company PwC announced an eye-watering $3 billion investment to upskill and retrain every single employee that works for it over the next three to four years.

Changes are afoot at Deutsche Post DHL Group, too, with the introduction of a career marketplace, with work skills as the currency and data as the foundation. “This means that all employees will have access to learning and growth opportunities, personalized and recommended directly to them,” explains Meredith Wellard, VP Group Learning, Talent & HR Platform Management.

The program, which is set to welcome its first live users in the first half of 2022, is “a chance to ensure that we always have the right people with the right skills in the right place,” says Wellard. It will also be able to “strengthen and develop” the Group’s biggest candidate pool: “our own employees.”

Changes due to future work trends will hit some industries harder than others. The automotive sector, for example, is moving towards a zero-emissions future, but at the same time is concerned about the transition to electric vehicles and what that will mean for its workforce. A report by Boston Consulting Group showed that, by 2030, European auto industry employment will drop by less than 1% from 5.7 million people today amid the transition to electric vehicles. But for those manufacturers and suppliers focused on traditional gas and diesel vehicles, the drops will be 20% and 42% respectively. That’s about 500,000 jobs. Openings in the electric vehicle sector will rise by an estimated 10%.

POWERING UP: Employment opportunities in the electric vehicle sector are expected to rise.

The Platform for Electromobility, an industry group, has called on the EU to help, and says governments and companies should focus on investing in education, training, upskilling and reskilling workers to ensure no one is left behind as the industry makes the transition to electric.

In general, jobs involving physical and manual skills will be the most vulnerable. According to McKinsey, demand for physical and manual skills in repeatable and predictable tasks in Europe and the U.S., for example, is expected to decline by nearly 30% over the next decade, while demand for basic literacy and numeracy skills is set to fall by almost 20%. In contrast, the demand for technological skills (both coding and especially interacting with technology) is predicted to rise by more than 50%, with the need for complex cognitive skills likely to increase by one-third. Demand for high-level social and emotional skills, such as initiative taking, leadership and entrepreneurship, is also expected to rise by more than 30%.

Lifelong learning is key

Marieke Vandeweyer, Senior Policy Analyst at the OECD Centre for Skills, says upskilling and reskilling will certainly continue, but she points out that it is not an entirely new phenomenon. 

“For at least a decade, lifelong learning has been considered essential for individuals and societies to navigate a rapidly changing world of work,” says Vandeweyer. “The idea that learning only pertains to the young is outdated and doesn’t meet the demands of societies and labor markets in a constant state of flux.”

Unfortunately, she says, though some workers do want to reskill and upskill, many still do not participate in adult learning. “We need to make more efforts to increase the motivation to learn, but also to help people overcome financial and time-related barriers.”

She cites some initiatives that are being implemented in OECD countries to do this. In the U.K., for example, Unionlearn uses “union learning representatives” to encourage and support other colleagues with learning in the workplace. 

GOOD EDUCATION: In the new world of work, constant learning will be essential for everyone.

“This program provides training to about 250,000 workers every year, including many low-qualified workers,” Vandeweyer says.

International efforts to update work skills

In France, meanwhile, workers and jobseekers have a personal training account and can use accumulated credits to pay their fees for quality-assured training programs. Vandeweyer also cites a scheme in Denmark, under which learners can combine modules from different types of adult learning programs to obtain a formal qualification.

Singapore is often held up as an example of how a government can foster a culture of lifelong learning in its people. 

In 2015, the government launched an online portal that provides citizens with the resources to support their training and career education throughout their lives. All citizens aged 25 and over receive a “learning credit” that can be used on approved training courses. Popular courses include data analytics, cybersecurity, digital media and entrepreneurship.

According to a recent report by McKinsey, because of China’s sheer scale, it is estimated that up to one-third of the global occupational transitions needed for the future of work may be there. 

FACING THE FUTURE: China could offer a model of best training practice that may be useful to other economies.

It arguably makes sense to avoid major disruption and unintended consequences by establishing best practice through relatively small-scale pilots before scaling up to the national level.

Levers to drive training projects

A survey of best practice in China and around the world highlights four levers that could be used to drive pilot projects to promote future work skills: 

  • Digital Technologies – reaching individuals through tech-enabled learning platforms
  • Collaborative Ecosystem – school-enterprise partnerships
  • Enhanced Vocational Tracks – universities open to vocational tracks
  • Mindset and Incentives – information platforms and subsidized training programs 

And if China is successful in this, its strategy could act as a helpful reference point for other economies.

It’s important to remember that, while rapid change may at times feel stressful and chaotic, it can – and should – lead to a more secure future. A 2021 report by the World Economic Forum, entitled “Upskilling for Shared Prosperity,” estimated that wide-scale investment in upskilling has the potential to boost GDP by $6.5 trillion by 2030.

But the report also emphasized that enhancing GDP is not the full story and noted the need for new economic thinking underpinned by the development of good jobs: “Work that is safe, paid fairly, reasonably secure and motivating, and that emphasizes the uniquely human skills and traits of workers, thus delivering higher levels of productivity.”

If we can get it right, the upside of embracing change could be a better future for us all. — Cathy Dillon


Rough percentage of employees around the world needing reskilling by 2025

Almost 4 million

Number of people in the U.S. who quit their jobs in April 2021

30 million

Number of people IBM plans to upskill globally by 2030

$3 billion

Amount invested by PwC in 2020 to upskill and retrain every one of their employees over the next 3-4 years

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What is being planned at Deutsche Post DHL Group

Meredith Wellard, VP Group Learning, Talent & HR Platform Management

At Deutsche Post DHL Group, we are introducing a career marketplace with skills as the currency and data as the foundation. It means that all employees will have access to learning and growth opportunities – personalized and recommended directly to them. We have three objectives: to strengthen the engagement and retention of our employees; to make learning and growth more effective and efficient; and finally, to prepare our workforce for the jobs of the future.

The marketplace has at its core a very smart AI that continuously looks at market data and evaluates the skills needed for roles across DPDHL. It then makes individual suggestions to the employees about learning and experiences that would support their growth, or jobs that they might like to consider based on their current or developing skills.

It’s a chance to ensure that we always have the right people with the right skills in the right place … and that we continue to strengthen and develop our biggest candidate pool – our own employees!

The suggestions will be targeted at the critical skills each employee needs for their job today, as well as at the skills they will need in the future based on changes in work or their own career aspirations.

We expect to welcome our first live users in Q2 2022 and continue the rollout from there.

Published: December 2021

Images:; Meredith Wellard

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