From retraining staff for healthcare support roles to upskilling to meet gaps in the workforce, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a skills boost for huge numbers of workers. What's more, even those who haven't done any training have probably picked up some new skills.

In March, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) was forced to implement a temporary work reduction affecting 90% of its workforce. Like many airlines, the company saw demand collapse as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. The company responded by asking for volunteers to retrain so that they could assist in hospitals and nursing homes – with 300 signing up.


In the UK, Virgin Atlantic and easyJet are also re-training workers to help with healthcare. Many other companies are looking at ways to reskill and upskill workers during the outbreak, even businesses that are simply trying to maintain momentum among a remote workforce could be unconsciously upskilling. Is it possible that the pandemic is driving an enormous skills boost?

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Investing in skills training


Certainly, governments are aware of the potential. The European Commission says it will support “upskilling and reskilling programs that have proven effective in the past”. In Germany, the Netherlands and Singapore governments are investing in or protecting skills training.


For some companies, such as oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, the pandemic is an opportunity to focus on training. The company had already planned a massive program to train workers in artificial intelligence to make up for a shortage of skills in the workforce. The training program was online, which means it can carry on with minimal disruption while employees are working remotely and locked down at home.


Other companies, such as food delivery service Deliveroo, are offering free online training courses during the pandemic. The Rider Academy will benefit 5,000 employees and their families.


An online training boom


Online training can require some support, particularly for workers who have suddenly – and unexpectedly – found themselves working remotely. Education organization General Assembly reacted quickly by sharing its expertise in a free webinar on maximizing productivity for remote teams and by making its How To Teach Online course available free.

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Thousands signed up for both, reflecting a general increase in demand for online learning. General Assembly saw demand for its online introductory classes, workshops and events double over a three-week period over March and April compared to what they see normally. Tens of thousands of people have signed-up for General Assembly’s Free Fridays, which opens up some of the most popular courses in order to help people and companies in need of new skills.


The company is also partnering with employers, educators and even cities. In Louisville, Kentucky, in the US, for example, the company is offering subsidized training in fields like software engineering and data analysis as part of the Mayor’s COVID-19 Reskilling Initiative.


Everyday learning matters too

Of course, for many people, there has been no capacity for online training during the lockdown. Plenty of workers are trying to do their jobs while coping with the challenge of working remotely for the first time. On top of that, lots of these people will also be trying to occupy children whose schools are closed or work around partners or housemates who are now also at home.


The good news, for businesses and workers, is that many of these people will be picking up new skills too. Their communication skills will be strengthened by being part of a remote team. If you are checking-in with colleagues only once per day then everyone has to be clear and precise in communicating what they are doing.

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Digital skills will be sharpened for many workers too, who might be trying to complete tasks on unfamiliar equipment or using new software. This is a test of flexibility. These kinds of soft skills are increasingly important in the workplace and the pandemic is testing plenty of them, from management and teamwork skills, to autonomy and self-care. Simply supporting your workers through this time will help them return to the workplace with a broader skills base.


Reskilling and upskilling have never been more important. Innovative solutions, such as partnerships with public authorities, will be necessary to overcome the current crisis and improve our prospects in the coming physical distancing economy and beyond.


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