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Upskilling and reskilling for the future of work

Beth Porter, President, COO, Co-founder, Esme Learning
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As proliferating technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR) and other augmentation tech become more accessible and readily available, there is growing pressure for organisations – and those leading them – to better understand how these new tools can be utilised. As it stands, I would argue that most organisations have not yet figured out how to acquire and use these tools effectively, particularly when it comes to data management, at the beginning of the process, and human-AI tech solutions, as a desired result. Half of the challenge is changing mindsets at a leadership level; the other half is training employees in new hard and soft skills that will help them evolve with the technologies.

Indeed, in industries such as financial services, healthcare, and cybersecurity, it is becoming ever crucial for working professionals to understand the latest tech trends that could affect both their sector and their employment. The most common complaint around AI from workers, for example, is that it may “steal your job” in the future. However, that won’t apply to workers who upskill now for the future of work. In fact, the World Economic Forum predicts that half of all employees globally need to upskill or reskill by 2025 to embrace new responsibilities driven by automation and new technologies.

It’s hugely profitable for businesses to invest in reskilling their employees, making the case for reskilling increasingly difficult for businesses to ignore.

According to recent McKinsey research, 43% of all reskilling cases were found to yield payoffs in large enterprises and, in a further 30% of reskilling cases, small and medium-sized enterprises were found to receive a net benefit from upskilling their workers.

Higher education leaders must take action to ensure they provide executive education learners and instructors the right tools for a successful online learning experience.

Emerging technologies and a growing skills divide

At present, however, a skills divide is not only emerging, but growing. Take data, for example – now considered to be the lifeblood of today’s economy. Data literacy is essential to success if we are all to benefit from the increasingly data-rich environments that we live and work in.

However, in the UK, 48% of businesses are recruiting for roles that require hard data skills, and yet almost half (46%) have struggled to find talent over the last two years. The supply of talent with specialist data skills from universities is limited. While many companies will strive to train their own workers, there is still a lack of confidence in their ability to do so. Half of all workers surveyed reported they had not received any training within the last two years despite stating considerable interest in it.

This shortage of skills and expertise is concerning to leadership and executives. Just 16% of executives believe that their teams can deliver on their digital strategy. A re-think is clearly needed.

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Executive education to support the workforce of the future

A skills gap of this magnitude is not easy to close. While it will require an array of approaches – including improved recruitment practices to proper upskilling and reskilling – I see edtech platforms as an unsung hero. Working together with higher education institutions and businesses, edtech can and will play a pivotal role in bridging the skill gaps within the workforce.

However, as with any emerging technology, nascent problems need to be addressed. Firstly, the sector needs to provide courses that focus on optimising learning online for greater student engagement. The global e-learning market is expected to reach $457.8 billion by 2026, yet most online courses haven’t evolved past pre-recorded and generalized lectures, static web pages, and basic multiple choice tests, which leads to incredibly low course completion rates. For comparison, most learning platforms have varying completion rates that hover anywhere between 30-70%.

The secret to higher completion rates is to ensure the online classroom environment is as engaging and collaborative as it is in an in person environment. Historically, this has been exceptionally difficult to do as most online platforms prioritise flashy user interfaces versus substantive course material, including technologies helping to ensure learner engagement and knowledge retention of the material.

For example, the digital learning platform I co-founded, Esme Learning, uses artificial intelligence embedded in video chat meetings and text chat environments to provide real-time individual and group feedback about social skills and team cohesion. This offers a holistic view of how learners interact in small groups through data. This also provides learners with interpersonal feedback around their situational and social awareness.

Finally, many edtech platforms deliver courses that lack the standards held within physical classrooms, ultimately leading to subpar education. The most impactful learning experiences are highly applicable, entertaining, and delivered with empathy – with genuine connections made among learners and their instructors.

What’s next?

While we cannot allow the skills gap to widen, we must also acknowledge the scale of the challenge ahead. There is no quick remedy; instead companies, educators and technologists within edtech must collaborate and invest in reskilling their workforces. As we enter the fourth industrial revolution, arguably brought forward faster by the COVID-19 pandemic, closing the skills gap should be every leader’s priority.

Beth Porter, President, COO, Co-founder, Esme Learning


Embracing remote working poses serious early-stage challenges for organizations, across the operating-model dimensions of people, structure, process, and technology and leaders have an essential role to play in developing solutions to tackle these challenges in the short term.

The future of work: Reskilling and remote working to recover in the ‘next normal’, The McKinsey Research Institute 2020

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