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The case for upskilling: Four reasons why CEOs need to future-proof their workforce

19 November, 2020

While the future of work is a topic that dominates the current business agenda, there appears to be a lack of momentum in making the necessary investments to implement effective workforce strategies. CEOs need to act now and plan how their businesses will upskill their people to thrive in a digital world.

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By now, we all recognise and understand that COVID-19 has fundamentally changed how people work, where they work, and what skills they require.

The rapid move to a predominantly virtual working world exposed gaps in the capabilities of many organisations and their people. 

This is an issue that leaders were already struggling with before the pandemic. PwC’s Talent Trends 2020, based on survey data from late 2019, showed that a staggering 74% of CEOs were concerned about the availability of key skills.

But just as the pandemic highlighted the biggest skills mismatches between organisations and their people, it provides an opportunity for CEOs to develop strategies to build the workforce they need for the future.

And given the urgency to find the right talent with the right cultural fit, more and more companies are realising the benefits of upskilling the people they already have. 

The acceleration of new ways of working makes it clear that upskilling people should not be a sideshow to the other efforts CEOs are making to stay solvent and recover from the economic disruption caused by COVID19. Upskilling should be a priority in a world where the speed of change is unprecedented and the path ahead is uncertain.

CEOs can set the budget and measure the return on investment in their people. Tracking this return can also provide the concrete proof that taking care of employees is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do. 

So, our advice is to focus on people, because they have proven to be surprisingly good at adapting and learning. The panic about lost productivity that came in March had subsided by June. Companies realised that their employees were flexible and could cope with working from home - at least in the short term. 

As a side note, however, some recent PwC data has shown that, in some instances, superachievers have filled in the gaps when others struggled. Organisations need to pay close attention to the risks to both operational and individual resiliency that this pattern poses. 

CEOs who have made investments to create a skilled and engaged workforce are already reaping the benefits of that strategy. In PwC’s 23rd Annual Global CEO Survey (conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic), 93% of CEOs who had introduced upskilling programmes said these programmes increased productivity; they also helped attract and retain talent and helped deliver a resilient workforce. 

However, only 18% of CEOs who took the survey said they had invested in upskilling. This low uptake shows that the message about its strategic importance still needs amplification. The business case for upskilling should be a priority for every CEO now.

Four key areas for CEOs to make the case for upskilling

Focus on upskilling that delivers business strategy

When we asked more than 22,000 employees around the world their hopes and fears about work, more than three-quarters said they wanted to improve their skills. Now is the perfect opportunity for leaders to take advantage of their peoples’ aspiration and align it with their upskilling initiatives and business goals. 

That means assessing your staff’s skills, particularly in relation to technology, and other crucial skills, such as problem-solving and working effectively in cross-functional teams. The CEO may need some upskilling, too (and PwC has a free app that can help). 

It’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution in upskilling.  The key is understanding what the future capability profile looks like, and figuring out how to bridge the gap.

Prioritise employee engagement and experience

There’s a measurable connection between successful upskilling and employee engagement. Among CEOs who took part in the latest PwC Annual Global CEO Survey who had introduced an upskilling programme, 60% said it was highly effective in improving culture and employee engagement. In the PwC 2020 Global Digital IQ survey, 86% of respondents said their digital training and education programs have improved employee engagement and performance. And according to Gallup, highly engaged business units have a 41% reduction in absenteeism and a 17% increase in productivity. 

Boost productivity

Companies are expected to spend close to US$4 trillion globally this year on technology. In the past, this kind of investment did not always result in the productivity gains most leaders expected. If upskilling is done well, the digital, human and commercial capability uplift in your workforce brings about greater use of new tools and enabling technologies, such as robotic process automation or AI. 

By focussing the efforts of your workforce on value-add and enriching activities, and away from repetitive and routine tasks, you unlock greater value whether that’s stronger connections with customers, better innovation or process efficiencies. 

At PwC, for example, we are offering training to all staff on a variety of tools. More than 275,000 employees around the world, in 157 countries and regions, are participating. The digital hubs that have been created to support this effort now document thousands of new ideas created by people to help solve their day-to-day problems. 

Embrace a growth mindset to inspire lifelong learning

Upskilling is a medium- to long-term strategy. We live in a world beset by disruptions that will continue beyond this pandemic. The megatrends PwC has identified as key challenges for the 21st century — such as the speed of technological change — require an agile workforce and agile management. Being prepared to weather crises with a flexible, knowledgeable workforce and a culture built on resilience will stand you in good stead.

CEOs can have and lead with a growth mindset. They should encourage their workforce to evolve. They can start by upskilling personally and communicating what they are doing to their people. This doesn’t mean learning to code, necessarily, but it does mean understanding what new technologies can do and what they can’t. 

Savvy leaders who value and nurture their workforce’s innate talents, ability to learn, and desire to do good work will have a great chance of boosting their business and retaining and attracting talent. They will beat the skills gap. 

So while you’re taking steps to keep employees safe and healthy, it’s important to ensure they have the skills to thrive as they contribute to the organisation’s overall success.

We are here to help you

As the future of work continues to evolve and the pace of change accelerates unabated, we know that figuring out where to start on your workforce strategy can often be the most daunting point.  

To discuss what this might look like for your organisation, contact us today.

Contact us

Gerard McDonough

Partner, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

Tel: +353 87 224 1517

Ger Twomey

Director, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

Tel: +353 1 792 7303

Ciara Fallon

Director, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

Tel: +353 1 792 8857

Marie O'Donoghue

Director, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

Tel: +353 1 792 7895

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