The case for universal action on digital re-skilling

At the turn of May, nearly a quarter of all British employees had been placed on the government's furlough scheme due to the country-wide COVID-19 lockdown. With no firm exit plan in sight and with talk of a creeping recession, millions will be feeling acutely anxious about the future of their careers – or indeed, if they will have jobs to return to at all once the dust eventually settles.

According to the Office for National Statistics, preliminary data showed that vacancies throughout April were thought to have halved compared to the previous month – lower the amount of jobs than at the peak of the financial crisis. And some economists warn that of the millions of jobs that have been lost, many may never return.

Furloughed employees are not allowed to work for their company at all, under the conditions of the scheme, and with the government slow to move on assistance for the self-employed or freelancers, where work is also drying up, one of the few resources many citizens have left at the moment is time.

Step forward e-learning

This has led to a boost in e-learning – out of necessity not just for students enrolled in existing schools and universities, many of whom intend to defer rather than attend online classes next year, but also for those that have been thrown into further precarity, or expect to be.

Some companies have formally partnered with learning platforms to offer re-skilling programmes to their employees – however, some of these will no doubt be viewed as a way to cushion the bad news to come, amid waves of redundancies and a high-street under renewed threat.

Two-thirds of people under 35, says publisher Pearson, which has recently launched the free UK Learns portal, fear losing their jobs, while searches for 'online courses' are up 300 percent since lockdown began. Polling commissioned by the publisher found that people aged between 18 and 35 are most likely to have started developing further skills at home, and 60 percent of this group had done so compared to one in three between the ages of 36 and 54.

Efforts are being conducted within companies, and via external learning portals. For example, companies like global enterprise applications firm IFS has offered consultants free courses to train on its systems – allowing certification on IFS products. Recruiter Harvey Nash began offering live remote upskilling 'masterclasses', and companies such as Degreed have partnered with businesses like Unilever, Citi, and HP to lessen the ongoing impact of skills shortages. Some universities have made learning materials available for free.

Many learning development managers and HR staff are stuck between a rock and a hard place, suggests Ed Johnson, CEO of PushFar, a free learning platform where anyone can sign up to be a mentor – or to be mentored – and that also licenses its platform to businesses.

"I think learning and development often, and HR in general, are in the middle of it," he says. "They're being told from high: you've got to make redundancies. They're trying to soften the blow, but they're often not given the right budget from the hierarchy in order to do that."

"With redundancies, it's a difficult position, but I think they'll probably take the blame, when actually a lot of the time – at least from the conversations I'm having – they're the ones who really tried to make sure that they are giving these individuals the resources they need to ultimately pick themselves up."

Johnson says that once the initial shock from lockdown lessened, he was hearing from HR leaders that many of their concerns were around supporting employees' mental health, as well as promoting virtual learning.

But as the economic impacts of the crisis became clearer, with firms beginning to make redundancies, another concern was ensuring that management had the right skills and capabilities in place to run their businesses, in the event of headcount losses.

Startups have also been affected. Internationally, major VC firms such as Sequoia and Accel had earlier warned startups to prepare for the worst from the ongoing macroeconomic situation. Already plagued by uncertainties surrounding Brexit and the fear of a country-wide 'brain drain', the government was slow to provide help to startups, and many were initially locked out from assistance when it was offered.

Chris Hocking, who is preparing to raise funds for his Athens-based musician services startup Indiy, and is both a mentor and a 'mentee' on PushFar, says he has found the informal, person-to-person communication on the platform valuable.

'Learn to code'

There are schemes out there and help is available, which is to be applauded. Yet these are largely siloed and disparate, the product of individual initiative, rather than casting a wide net, and many people will no doubt be left adrift – unsure of how best to proceed with remote learning, or who may not have considered it yet at all, and who will want to do everything they can to somewhat dampen the economic shocks to come.

'Learn to code' has practically become a meme to caricature technocrats who insist that every individual's problem could be solved by a handful of self-paced coding courses, should people only decide to do them.

Crafting apps and designing websites is hardly a one-size-fits-all solution to any of this country's problems. But, what's not in doubt is that there is a digital skills shortage in Britain and throughout Europe.

According to figures from the European Commission last year, which of course did not take into account the COVID-19 crisis, in 2020 there will be 756,000 unfulfilled IT jobs across Europe. The World Economic Forum, meanwhile, has predicted that there should be global jobs growth of 133 million by 2022 as a result of the "division of labour between humans and machines".

The effects of COVID-19 are being felt in software development already, according to research from Sonatype, which recorded a recent 28 percent drop in productivity.

The supply chain automation firm measured open source software download requests by country on the central repository it maintains, over the 15-month period from January 2019 to April 2020. Patterns matched a downturn in software development experienced in China, which, at its peak, was 43 percent lower. However – following the 10-week downturn – China has bounced back somewhat, suggesting a recovery may also be imminent in the UK, but, like everything else at this time, that's no sure thing.

Time for a joined-up approach?

Given the mixture of the worrying global situation, the number of at-risk employees, those already made redundant, and the social distancing measures that are still in force – combined with the pre-existing digital skills gap – a coordinated push towards re-skilling the UK's workforce would seem to be a no-brainer.

Of course, the priorities have rightly been in public health, to mitigate immediate harm to citizens' health, and especially those of the most at-risk groups. But once this health crisis is eventually somewhat curtailed, the secondary economic effects threaten to be long-lasting.

While the furlough scheme has been extended until at least September, it won't continue indefinitely. With Britain recently re-opening some sectors of the economy, it is employees who are in more precarious roles that are expected to return to work.

Of course, supermarkets, small retail outlets, postal workers, delivery drivers, transport workers, logistics workers, food workers, teachers, private hire taxi drivers, and health workers are all busier than ever during the lockdown, without hazard pay, without proper protections, and, ultimately, risking their lives. Already riven by inequality, an even starker dividing line has been drawn.

Re-skilling initiatives can't be just for those that have been safely ensconced at home. The post-lockdown economic fallout will likely hit the kinds of key workers that kept the country running during the crisis first, and hardest.

If there was a time for co-ordinated action from government towards driving jobs and learning programmes across the country, now would be the time – and digital skills would be one glaringly obvious place to start.

This story, "The case for universal action on digital re-skilling" was originally published by Techworld.com.

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