Invest in employee training before it’s too late

Rapid adoption of artificial intelligence, automation and advanced technologies means businesses have to invest time and money in reskilling and upskilling employees, before it’s too late

Nationwide lockdowns, enforced to limit the deadly spread of the coronavirus, sparked an explosion in digital transformation and home-working trends across the globe. Digital transformation, though, is not deployed once; it’s an ongoing strategic campaign.

Technology and people are the two drivers powering successful digital transformation. Yet myopic business leaders, bedazzled by tech, risk forgetting the people power. Investing in staff training is critical. Moreover, it’s a win-win situation.

“The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.” Henry Ford, the founder of the eponymous automotive giant and architect of the assembly-line technique of mass production, died 73 years ago, but his words live on with matured meaning.

Businesses must retain and retrain their workforce to keep up with, and take advantage of, a constant stream of innovations

Encouraging employees to reskill or upskill emphasises a level of care and commitment towards them, at this time of acute vulnerability. If left unchecked, automation advancements and COVID-19’s long shadow are enough to disable anyone’s career. While investment in staff training boosts morale and in turn productivity, it also helps better future-proof an organisation and narrows the sometimes chasmal skills gap.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018 laid bare the need to learn new talents to thrive in tomorrow’s workplace. Analytical thinking and innovation will be most desired in the 2022 skills outlook; manual dexterity, endurance and precision could be the first shown the door.

Further, the researchers calculated that on average employees will require 101 days’ retraining and upskilling from 2018 to 2022 as “emerging skills gaps, both among individual workers and among companies’ senior leadership, may significantly obstruct transformation management”.

Manifold benefits of investing in employee training

“On the one hand, businesses must retain and retrain their workforce to keep up with, as well as take advantage of, a constant stream of innovations,” says Anthony Tattersall, head of Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), for online learning platform Coursera, which has generated more than 25 million enrolments since mid-March, a 520 per cent rise from the same period last year. “On the other hand, individuals must keep pace with a constant stream of innovations that hybridise and alter jobs.”

In-demand skills

Last year the Office for National Statistics predicted 1.5 million jobs in England are at “high risk of being automated in the future”. Tattersall continues: “Many jobs will slip away, but increased productivity will mean many more new jobs will replace them, across all industries. These jobs are at risk of going unfilled if we don’t adapt to a new way of thinking about education and learning new skills throughout a lifetime.”

There are manifold benefits of investing in employee training, he adds. Funded learning improves staff engagement and empowerment, and helps facilitate the transition to remote working. It also enhances the emotional wellbeing of employees. “The act of learning helps cope with stress,” says Tattersall, noting the average age of a learner on the Coursera enterprise platform globally is 29.

But with business leaders struggling to cope with the onslaught of disruption wrought by COVID-19, is enough being done to protect future careers?

D2L published research in June that showed almost three quarters (74 per cent) of learning and development (L&D) professionals believe the rise of automation and artificial intelligence is having a serious effect on their workforce. While 59 per cent have subsequently evolved their L&D programmes, the same percentage of employees don’t believe these challenges can be met with the current offering.

Collaboration and a continuous learning culture

“There is not only a mismatch between employees’ and L&D leaders’ views on the skills crisis,” says Alan Hiddleston, D2L’s director of corporate learning, EMEA, “but it would seem many organisations do not offer engaging learning opportunities that actively encourage personal development and ‘enable’ their workforce to continue to test themselves.

“To deliver effective L&D solutions, there needs to be greater collaboration among departments. Establishing a continuous learning culture is key.”

LinkedIn’s Leading with Learning report, also launched in June, presents a more positive conclusion. Some 76 per cent of L&D professionals in the UK say more chief executives are now actively championing the development of their workforce since the COVID-19 outbreak, up from 28 per cent in a comparable study conducted in October.

If you could time-port a university professor from the 19th century to today they would think few things have changed

“The coronavirus pandemic has forced many companies to pause hiring,” says Namrata Murlidhar Anand, director at LinkedIn Learning, “and instead focus on helping their existing employees adapt to the ‘new normal’ and develop skills that will be crucial to future growth.”

Platforms for so-called MOOCs (massive open online courses), including Tattersall’s Coursera and Udemy, have stepped up. “The online learning world is now overflowing with courses on pretty much any topic from a professional or personal standpoint,” says Amanda Rosewarne, business psychologist, co-founder and chief executive of the Professional Development Consortium, which accredits online courses.

“Cost-effective online training is disrupting the world of education. Prior to COVID-19, it was estimated that the e-learning industry would be worth $325 billion by 2025. This is likely to have quadrupled since lockdown.”

Rosewarne urges caution when selecting online courses, as many are scams, but says: “With barriers to entry being low, millions of people across the globe are beginning to share their knowledge with the world. The online learning boom shows people are thirsty for knowledge.”

Rise of blended learning for a life-journey

Martin Raymond, co-founder of strategic foresight consultancy The Future Laboratory, argues that learning was due a shake-up. “If you could time-port a university professor from the 19th century to today they would think few things have changed,” he says, referencing the youth of students and hierarchical system. “Prior to COVID-19, this was changing, especially for those in their 50s and 60s, millennials and members of Generation Z.

“We understand new skills, disciples and insights are needed to accommodate this multifaceted life-journey we are on. And since universities are still trying to accommodate the single career path, many organisations – recognising their employees will stay with them our research shows for 2.3 years maximum, unless there is a wider prize to be won – are becoming educators in their own right.”

Raymond celebrates the surge of blended learning, part digital, part remote, part face to face, and traces the trend for lifelong learning back to 2008 and the global financial crash, when jobs became more precarious.

It’s a time Lord Jim Knight, chief education and external officer at Tes Global, remembers well. “I was employment minister in the aftermath of the 2008 crash and was part of preventing the scarring effect on young people of long-term unemployment,” he says. “Right now, we are in a deeper economic crisis than anything in my lifetime. I hope a similar focus can help this time, but individuals also have a responsibility.”

Can organisations survive if they fail to invest in their staff? “Frankly no, not in the longer term,” says Lord Knight. “Technological change and globalisation are redefining work and the wider economy constantly. The only answer is more individual and corporate agility; that is only possible through a deep-rooted, lifelong-learning culture.”

Hackathons, so-called brown-bag informal sharing sessions and coffee roulette on Slack have been embraced to improve the learning culture within Tes, and break down silos, he says. “People need to feel active and valued, even when isolated,” Lord Knight concludes. “Investing in them through learning and in making it easier to work remotely is just non-negotiable.”

It’s imperative business leaders heed these lessons and invest in their employees.