Solving the upskilling challenge

Written by
Carol Stubbings, Global Leader of People and Organisations, PwC

20 Apr 2020

20 Apr 2020 • by Carol Stubbings, Global Leader of People and Organisations, PwC

A radical rethink of what we call ‘work’ is required to meet the upskilling challenge, writes Carol Stubbings, global leader of people and organisation at PwC.

From boardrooms to newsrooms, barely a day goes by without a mention of the skills gap. It’s therefore of little surprise that it was a key concern for business leaders worldwide in PwC’s annual CEO Survey, released last month. 

The global mood is reflected in UK CEOs too, with 79% saying the lack of available key skills is a threat to their business, trumped only by cyber threats (80%). Despite this, just half of business leaders are actually focused on upskilling. The problem is set to worsen if we don’t adopt a radical new strategy to tackle it. 

Coping with exponential change

While the skills challenge is multifaceted and complex, it’s not unique. We have already undergone societal upskilling shifts with the introduction of computers into the workplace, and we upskill every day as we learn how to use the latest apps. But today’s exponential pace of change has not gone unnoticed by CEOs; three-quarters in the UK expressed concern about the speed of technological change, compared to only 59% in 2015. 

It suggests that businesses and workers are struggling to keep up with disruption. Traditional training strategies don’t cut it at a time of continuous change and automation. Add to that broader societal challenges, such as widening wealth inequality, an ageing population and a growing digital divide — and a fundamental rethink is needed of how we define an occupation. 

Break down occupations into the sum of their parts

The first thing businesses must do is re-evaluate their business model and how they define a ‘job’, ‘occupation’ and ‘task’. By breaking down occupations into the sum of their parts, we start to understand which tasks require humans and which could be outsourced to machines. 

In passing the routine tasks to machines, businesses can provide a higher quality of work to their people, enhancing employee satisfaction and improving staff retention. As well as providing more fulfilling work, a task-based approach means that businesses are better able to measure exact skills gaps and to be more specific about the type of worker they need. 

Skills in demand are by no means always digital ones. Human competencies such as empathy and the ability to build relationships have an even greater premium in a world of machines. But no one can afford to sit still; everyone has to improve their skills and add value as jobs change. Businesses are starting to understand this, but the broader societal shift from a focus on technical skills and rote learning to a focus on competencies will take time. 

Our upskilling journey

At PwC, we are on our own upskilling journey. In October, we committed US$3bn over the next four years to upskilling our people, as well as supporting our clients and wider society, through our ‘New World. New Skills’ initiative. Working alongside governments and other organisations around the world is the only way businesses will engender systemic change and ensure people don’t get left behind by technology. 

The upskilling challenge is massive, though not unsolvable. However, it will require a radical rethink of ‘work’ as we know it.

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