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New skilling was an urgent need, and challenge, for companies long before the COVID-19 crisis. In 2017, McKinsey estimated 375 million workers (about 14% of the global workforce) would have to switch jobs or acquire new skills by 2030 due to automation and artificial intelligence. And just recently, the McKinsey Global Survey found that 87% of executives were experiencing workforce skill gaps, or expected them within a few years. Yet, less than 50% had a clear sense of how to address the problem.

While hiring outside talent to fill the void may seem like an obvious solution, it’s not always the best use of resources. Often, the necessary talent is already at a company’s disposal—but its potential needs to be unlocked. New skilling existing talent is not only a more affordable tactic at a time when many organizations are cash-strapped, but it’s also critical for building organizational agility. When done effectively, it sets workplaces up to be more flexible in the face of change, such as the disruption brought on by COVID-19.

With companies laying off workers, implementing hiring freezes and taking other cost-cutting measures, their limited workforce is stepping into new roles and driving productivity. And for many, this approach is working. Though the crisis is proving that organizations can pivot and new skill quickly, flexibility need not stem from a fire drill. For new skilling to be impactful in the long run, employers have to identify the skills their workers need, develop a targeted learning strategy and provide the necessary tools for growth.

COVID-19 Proved That New Skilling Works—Now Companies Need Long-Term Strategy 

Gravity Payments is one company pursuing new skilling to drive business amid this crisis. The Seattle-based financial services company has been hit hard by the pandemic since its customers are small- to medium-sized businesses—a significant portion of which are restaurants. The need to drive revenue is at an all-time high, so Gravity is looking to its existing team to fill this new need.

“Our installation team, the people who go into the field, meet with merchants and set up their new terminals, doesn’t have nearly as much work because businesses are closed. So they have been tapped to be in sales roles. We have increased revenue generation needs, so [we’re training people] fast to help us do that,” Brooke Kerry, lead storyteller at Gravity Payments, said on a recent episode of Cornerstone’s podcast, HR Labs.

Other companies have made similar transitions. With stores closed, in-person business came to a grinding halt for outdoor and recreational equipment retailer L.L. Bean, so the company shifted some of its resources to producing critical personal protective equipment (PPE). Even retailers that weren’t impacted by shut down orders, like online shoe retailer Rothy’s, shifted gears—the brand also began making PPE.

Post-COVID, companies won’t necessarily have to worry about pivoting quite so rapidly and drastically, but that doesn’t mean that the need for new skilling will go away. 

A recent Gartner CFO survey revealed that once the crisis is over, almost three in four CFOs plan to “shift at least 5% of previously on-site employees to permanently remote positions.” Sales teams, for instance, may have to learn how to manage customer relationships without ever meeting in-person, while technicians will need to receive training on setting up, diagnosing or servicing hardware from a distance. Some roles may disappear altogether, which means employees will have to gain entirely new skill sets to stay with the companies that have, in many cases, employed them for years.

And, though many employees have “learned by doing” during the first phase of the crisis or received “quick and dirty” training, research suggests new skilling will need to be more strategic to have a long-lasting impact. And training is key.

New Skilling Requires a Combination of Strategy and Tech

According to Cornerstone People Research Lab data, training has grown substantially in the last several weeks as companies helped their employees adapt to the “new normal,” with a spike in courses about stress management and working from home. The need for this type of material will only continue to grow. 

As a business model shifts away from, say, in-store sales to home deliveries, a company’s logistics coordinators might suddenly have a greater impact on strategy and need different skill sets to facilitate the increase in demand and customer expectations. To deal with this level of disruption, McKinsey recommends bucketing new skilling efforts into categories that not only prepare employees to use new technologies, but also to deal with change in a healthy way. In other words, learning has to nurture both hard and soft skills. And, to ensure optimal engagement and retention, learning has to meet learners where they are: it has to be ubiquitous, personalized and delivered naturally in the flow of work. Today, a robust learning management platform can deliver relevant courses and trainings, help set and track learner goals and foster accountability. 

New technologies continue to emerge to meet the need for new skilling. Virtual reality, for instance, can have a massive impact on increasing efficiency around new skilling efforts. 

“Employers are starting to find ways to bend the talents they have, moving them from one area to another. The cost of off-boarding and onboarding employees to a company is so high, that if employers can find ways to deal with skills mobility inside the organization, that is definitely going to pay dividends,” Kyle Jackson, CEO of virtual reality company Talespin, says. VR has the potential to speed time to proficiency—or the time it takes for an employee to be able to retain and apply learning effectively. Jackson says what might take three weeks to learn in a classroom setting, takes only about a week to learn using VR. It’s just one of many ways for companies to look at learning in an entirely new way. 

With so much uncertainty ahead, companies must invest in new skilling now to better position themselves for the future. The “new normal” isn’t a question of remote work versus an in-office presence. The “new normal” means new skilling to prepare a more adaptable, agile workforce to tackle the ever-evolving world of work.