Scott Cawood is president and CEO of WorldatWork, a total rewards association and compensation firm. Views are the author's own.
Perhaps it was denial. Maybe one too many sci-fi movies. Prior to COVID-19 there was some activity happening to reskill and upskill a workforce that had fallen behind on maintaining its own competitiveness by letting the world around it develop faster than its members. By even the most modest projections, several millions of jobs were already replaced by automation and the trend was on course for more. The tipping point for being behind the curve on reskilling our workforces has passed. We tripped, and stumbled, and then a global pandemic pulled the rug out from under us. We need to get back up, and fast.
Long before the pandemic struck, IBM executive chairman Ginni Rometty called for corporations to reskill and retrain workers to arm them for the new digital economy. She implored companies to start reskilling or else be left holding the bag. Her clarion call to action now has become imperative. When the economy reopens, many workers will return to a workplace they no longer recognize because the job they had may no longer exist. It's been completely transformed by the sweeping changes that were already in play and now accelerated because of the pandemic.
This wholesale change will test the resilience of companies and their ability to reskill. Resilience and a capacity to reskill are critical competencies for companies that want to excel post COVID-19. Getting people back to work is not going to be the issue. Getting work back to the people will be. And, constant development will be essential to building a sustainable workplace that now only operates in a continuous cycle of change. Sending people out to training won't be enough, we must bring the reskilling inside our workplaces.
For success to happen, this entire process should start in the HR corridors. HR leaders will need to steer companies right into the face of disruption without hesitation or remorse. Then, HR needs to be ready to push even harder when the economy bounces back and the inevitable scramble for talent begins to really impact organizations.
We are entering a time where there are basically two large groups of workers, lower paid with routine skills and higher paid, with unique skills. This is a dangerous intersection and not a sustainable model for growing the vitally critical skills we will need for today and tomorrow. It is time for us to put everything we have into rebuilding skills to keep the world at work. Every HR officer should look at their talent needs and become a chief reskilling officer. Instead of focusing on job descriptions, performance reviews and annual incentives, HR leaders can take the time right now and build new thinking, new capabilities, and new strategies, and plan to invest in reskilling now.
The gigs are outpacing others. Pre-COVID-19, gig workers may have represented more than one-third of workers in the U.S., and some pre-pandemic estimates expected them to represent half of the workforce by 2027; those freelancers have been reskilling at almost twice the rate as traditional workers, and it's a good bet that some of their peers on the unemployment rolls are beefing up their skill sets during this downtime. Both actions put current employees at a disadvantage.
What does reskilling look like in the HR field? How can HR leaders help their organizations prepare for the tsunami of needs that companies will have for people who do not have the skills to do jobs in the post COVID-19 normal? What's tripping people up is the "when," because there's no historical playbook from which to draw. When are we rehiring? How and when are we going to be engaging with each other out of quarantine, face-to-face, but maybe with masks on?
Fast labor shifts are already happening. Airlines are keeping people employed by repurposing surface staff to help other industries. They are looking at their skills (i.e., customer service, attention to detail, safety and risk management) and seeing where these skills can be applied. CVS is partnering with Gap, Hilton, Delta and dozens of other companies that furloughed their workers to recruit and meet the current surge of business. And that's just the tip: Thousands of workers will be redeployed as many will not be returning to their pre-pandemic jobs. The race is on to assess skills and ramp up for new jobs. Those who will win are those who hire quickly, onboard quickly, and condense what they once did in six months into six hours.
An effective reskilling plan will:
- Quickly assess current skills in the workforce and use them to project what you think you will need.
- Find the shortest path between skill A (no longer needed) to skill B or C which is needed (e.g., customer service — used to be behind the counter, now it's moving to an iPad).
- Sharpen core values. You need to know who you are and what you stand for. Think of it as an opportunity; If you know who you are and what you do well, it will be easier to communicate that to a complete stranger to your organization and you'll be able to more effectively welcome them into your company culture.
- Make reskilling the new normal every six to 12 months. While HR can lead this, it will take every manager spending time on growing the capabilities of their people.
Post COVID-19, every organization and role will feel a bit different and multiple roles will need to be tweaked. Even Amazon, which has been thriving, now has customers with extremely high anxiety levels. What will they need to do differently to reskill their workers to authentically help this on-edge consumer? To address the many existing and future accelerating disruptions and have a chance at sustainability, your workplace must be able to upskill and learn a lot faster than the world is changing. That is no small ask.
HR has a critical role to play in the resilience plan of COVID-19, but it has an even bigger role to play in the massive reskilling of workers. Perhaps this is a unique opportunity for HR to have its truest and most significant moment and do both?