Upskilling and reskilling the workforce for an uncertain future



Read time
10 mins


The right talent is hard to find and keep. Upskilling and reskilling programmes will engage your people, and set up your organisation for future success

The past couple of years have been a perfect storm for workplace skills. The World Economic Forum was predicting even before the Covid pandemic that 50% of employees would need reskilling by 2025, while months of economic shocks, remote working and furlough have shaken up the labour market beyond recognition. Consulting firm McKinsey describes this as a ‘double disruption’, where the combination of increased automation and changes to working practices means organisations need to know where skills are, reskill people where appropriate, and support employees to acquire skills where there are gaps. Its research found that 87% of executives felt there were gaps in their workforce skills or that they expected there to be within a few years.

McKinsey argues that, in order to thrive in a post-pandemic world, organisations need to take six steps:

  1. Identify the skills that your recovery model depends on
  2. Build the skills critical to your new business model
  3. Create tailored learning journeys to close critical skills gaps
  4. Become more ‘agile’ and take on a small company mentality
  5. Test new approaches and iterate
  6. Protect your learning budget

In short, this means taking a step back to consider how the goals of the business might have changed, what new behaviours and skills this might require, and adapting approaches toc delivering them. Perry Timms, an organisational development consultant and founder of PTHR, advocates ‘disassembling’ jobs and putting them back together in a way that reflects changing requirements. Technical skills are a good example here, as even non-technical roles require increasing levels of digital competence and understanding. He says: “You have to look over the fence and see what the next set of skills might be. You might need banking experts who can code or ways to take people out of their specialism.” Supporting people to broaden and deepen skills that will allow them to ‘cross-cut’ across roles is also crucial as companies consider how talent is deployed. So good project managers can move across departments, for example.

This approach will become essential as organisations look to rebuild as the economy recovers. And in some cases, rapid reskilling of employees will help to avoid redundancy in the longer term.  “Upskilling and reskilling people into growing industries is crucial to combat ongoing workforce displacement,” says Chris Gray, director at recruitment company ManpowerGroup UK.

Take retail banks: as branches closed during the pandemic, employees needed to build their empathy skills as virtual consultations with customers surged, or to deal with a rise in applications for specific products such as more flexible mortgage options or insurance. Simon Lyle, managing director of Randstad Risesmart, an outplacement provider, argues that companies will need to develop ‘always-on’ skills development offerings that will help employees to adapt their knowledge as jobs change or new roles emerge.

“It all starts with awareness – employees holding a mirror up to themselves to find the skills gaps they need to address,” he says. “Career development is a huge driver of engagement.” Randstad RiseSmart’s global skilling survey recently found that 70% of HR teams asked or required employees to upskill or reskill to meet changing business needs. Another survey, by compliance training company DeltaNet, found a 70% increase in searches related to career switching between 2021 and 2017 as workers reconsidered their career priorities during the pandemic. “It’s going to become more important than ever that new and long-term employees are offered more than ‘just a job’, but a real future with ongoing opportunities for upskilling,” says former managing director Darren Hockley.

The way organisations build skills, as McKinsey suggests, will also need to change. Tech companies and start-ups are used to working according to ‘agile’ practices, which involve short sprints rather than long projects, and where adapting things along the way is all part of the process. Timms adds: “We need to stop looking at work in a big, unpalatable way and instead stage things in increments, breaking them down.”

Learning will also become increasingly bitesize and ‘just in time’, with upskilling employees to become more agile in their approach becoming an increasingly central part of learning strategy. One of the challenges, however, is that employees can be swamped by choice if learning content is not curated to their individual needs. “A learning advisor or introducing mentors that can challenge employees’ choices is the bit that an LMS can’t do,” says Lyle. “They can then carve out time in their day to fill their learning gaps and nudge forward.”

Giving employees more autonomy over skills development can also boost employee engagement. Ciphr’s learning platform, for instance, offers a skills gap analysis tool where employees can rate themselves against certain competencies. For example, if they want to build their teamwork skills, they can complete a questionnaire that will identify courses that will help them achieve that benchmark.

“They can show you where you are compared to others in your department, how different people in your organisation rate themselves, and the results can be used for performance conversations,” explains Toby Gilchrist, head of implementation services – LMS, at Ciphr. Skills analysis can feed into the company’s changing needs, show where the gaps are and aid succession planning, he adds. “You can see where people can move if they change their skills, where people might need to be upskilled for management and leadership.” Linking skills with career aspirations and plotting a pathway for employees can not only boost their confidence in learning but help the organisation to build a snapshot of talent ‘now’ and how it could look in the future.

With how and where we work likely changed forever by the pandemic’s impact, management skills will need to be high on organisations’ agendas. HR technology consultant Denis Barnard believes the erosion of management skills had been happening for some time pre-pandemic as people were promoted for their technical capabilities rather than their ability to manage others. “Management skills were missing anyway but now they’re managing a hybrid workforce, the skills gap will go through the floor,” he says.

“For too many organisations this has been on their radar, but they’ve been waiting until people could come back to the office. Managers need to learn to be empathetic, to work in a collaborative way, and to guide people to find the best way to get a job done. It’s not just about knowing the job better than anyone else.”

Another side effect of so much work being pushed into the virtual space is that the use of productivity tools such as Microsoft Office 365 and Slack has soared. This has forced many organisations to realise that employees’ digital skills were lacking, according to Adam Lacey, former operations director for Simon Sez IT, an IT training company. It can mean that employees spend much of their day working out how to do simple tasks in tools such as Excel rather than focusing on deeper knowledge work, which drives down engagement and increases people’s stress in the workplace.

“The usefulness and need for these programmes has been heightened, and people are spending more time using them,” he says. “Employees need to learn how to become productive when using them rather than burning out, and the first step is learning how to use them properly.” While some of these everyday tasks will be automated in years to come, investing in basic digital skills improvement pays off because employees can focus on where they add value.

Heather McGowan, a consultant on the future of work and co-author of The Adaptation Advantage, says the way we acquire and transfer skills will evolve as automation increases and roles disappear or are created. “The problem is we’ve been using models from the past. It used to be that if the market needed a certain skill you’d have around a decade to build it, acquire a degree or put together a professional qualification,” she says. “We don’t have a decade anymore, and the shelf life of skills – particularly in technology – is now around two or three years rather than five.”

Moving forward, the job for organisations will be to prepare employees for this constant change, both in upskilling them and in supporting them to gain the resilience this adaptability will require. She concludes: “We need to get better at human capital; how we reset people’s expectations, how we help people to adapt, and that we need to reskill throughout our careers.”


Five key takeaways

  1. Put learning in employees’ hands – allow them to do their own skills analysis and link to career aspirations
  2. Build management and soft skills as work becomes hybrid or remote in the longer term
  3. Invest in improving everyday technical skills so employees can spend more time on high-value activities
  4. ‘Disassemble’ jobs so you can see what the components are and where skills need to be improved, or how skills might change as the role evolves
  5. Adopt a lifelong learning and reskilling strategy that helps employees to feel comfortable gaining new skills


Case study: Jardine Motors Group

Jardine Motors Group is an automotive franchise group with 68 locations across the UK. Historically it had used face-to-face learning across its dealerships, but this was both expensive and time-consuming. Employees also had to restrict their learning to certain times rather than being able to go at their own pace.

In 2018, Jardine turned to Digits to provide eLearning content for compliance training on the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). One of the attractions of Digits LMS was how it presented learning, with regular email campaigns letting employees know what’s new and homepage content refreshed fortnightly.

Digits LMS really came into its own during the pandemic. The learning team had been making plans to push more content onto digital platforms for some time, but this was accelerated during 2020. In the first lockdown, the company needed to place around 95% of employees on furlough. Employees on furlough could continue to access the LMS to build skills or look at wellbeing content, while around 100 employees who were still working, albeit remotely, were able to use their downtime to build their skills.

OLI (online learning innovation), as the LMS is known to Jardine employees, has been instrumental in building employees’ confidence as they return to work. When showrooms reopened in summer 2020, employees could access videos about how the workplace would look with Covid-safe measures in place, making them less anxious about the return. A gamified ‘digital ninja’ programme has helped upskill employees in Microsoft Office 365 via a series of ‘missions’ for which they gain badges.

Jardine’s learning team has been transformed by digital learning, increasing the number of eLearning developers and upskilling many of those who had been used to face-to-face training. In 2020 it won an award from HR magazine for its L&D strategy, earning top scores from judges for the way it had linked OLI to wider business goals and its commitment to measurable success.


This is an extract from Good Work, Great Technology: Enabling strategic success through digital tools, published by leading UK HR software provider Ciphr