Upskilling: the secret weapon in uncertain times

#Upskilling #Customer #COVID19

Written by: Barry Vorster and Anneke Fellows (5 min read)

Before COVID-19, nearly three quarters (74%) of CEOs globally said they were concerned about whether they would have the talent they needed to ensure a sustainable future for their organisations. This is according to a PwC survey, Talent Trends 2020 – Upskilling: Building confidence in an uncertain world report. 

As South Africa eases national lockdown regulations, many organisations are opening their doors following months of restrictions. As they do so, they’re finding that some of the skills required pre-COVID-19, are no longer relevant in a disrupted world. Social distancing remains a requirement, and service organisations reliant on face-to-face contact have to limit customer interactions while trying to uphold levels of satisfaction. How is this possible when customer-centric human contact is a major differentiator for many organisations?


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Innovation and digital transformation will be key

There’s an urgent need for innovative thinking and devising new ways of achieving similar goals. Circumstances around COVID-19 and other disruptions have resulted in businesses having to accelerate their digital transformation, leading to a global fast-tracking of activities in support of Industry 4.0. Industry 4.0 advocates the rise of technological advancements that could augment and automate some human interaction, but employees must still be able to solve problems related to the rise of the digital age and understand relevant digital technologies, adding a human touch. Not all of them do. 

Organisations are holding onto their top performers, making it difficult for competitors to appoint key external resources. For many organisations, hiring is out of the question. According to Barry Vorster, PwC’s HR Technology and Culture leader, “finding people with the right skills and the right cultural fit will be even harder now”.

Use the resources you already have

At first it seems like a difficult question: how do I obtain the right skills to shift the dial on my organisation’s competitive advantage? The answer: upskill people who are already in the organisation. They understand and live the organisational culture. They understand the business. And they may already possess some of the skills. Upskilling saves on recruiting and onboarding costs, and contributes positively to South African employment when people are able to learn, unlearn and relearn within their organisations to remain relevant in the job market.

South Africa’s current disrupted reality shouldn’t become an excuse for a lack of training and development in the workplace. While demand is low and the number of onsite staff is lower, start with upskilling individuals whose jobs face redundancy. The circumstances brought about by disruption shouldn’t be viewed as obstacles, but rather an opportunity to accelerate upskilling efforts. Now, more than ever, look after your workforce and your organisation’s skills needs. Organisations that commit to this now, will emerge from COVID-19 more confident, resilient and competitive.

Understand the skills gaps within the organisation

Employees want to learn new skills if it means they remain relevant within the workforce; 77% of them have said so in our global study. Leadership needs to understand the skills gaps - both present and future. This information can be used as a weapon in the war for talent. Leverage this data, understand what it means and how it can help in predicting future skills needs.

It may not be obvious at first, but take a closer look at how your business operates. You’ll soon realise that many jobs could be automated, increasing productivity. Automation requires different human skills to those needed before. For instance, a typical factory job may have constituted drilling a screw into a panel on a car. Automation introduces a robot that can do this job, seemingly rendering an individual redundant. However,with adequate upskilling efforts, this individual can be taught to understand the mechanics of the new robot, and to repair or supervise it. 

Shift from a training to an upskilling mindset

Upskilling should be managed like the critical organisation-wide imperative it is. It’s about more than a simple training programme to teach new skills. It is a combination of learning-related activities, and involves organisation-wide planning and an entrenched understanding of the future operating requirements of the business. This can be achieved through methods such as e-learning, on-the-job training, simulations and gamification, virtual classrooms and traditional classroom approaches. The responsibility for upskilling efforts should ultimately rest with the CEO or at least the COO. It should be endorsed by Finance and driven by HR - this is not only to encourage buy-in, but more importantly to ensure commitment to upskilling and new ways of work from all departments. 

From an employee perspective, there must be knowledge of the importance of these efforts and the way of going about everyday tasks should be aligned to the broader strategy and operational aspects of the upskilling imperative. Upskilling cannot be achieved through a top-down approach only. There is a need for employees to be informed throughout, and they must be a part of the transformation journey.

Engage in fully-fledged upskilling initiatives

If you’re going to do it, you might as well do it properly! Targeted learning programmes that are executed appropriately yield returns that the organisation may not have even anticipated. For instance, organisations with advanced upskilling programmes report on stronger corporate culture, higher levels of employee engagement, increased productivity and greater business growth.

Now more than ever, organisations’ longevity depends on upskilling their workforce and creating a culture of infinite learning. Recent transformational changes in the way of work have brought a sense of urgency to upskilling efforts. Don’t rush upskilling and don’t make it a tick box exercise, but make a start today. Invest in upskilling as though the organisation’s survival depends on it - because it does.


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Barry Vorster

Barry Vorster

Director: People & Organisations, PwC South Africa

Tel: +27 (0) 11 797 4864

Anneke Fellows

Anneke Fellows

Senior Associate, PwC South Africa

Tel: +27 (0) 11 287 0688