How to Reskill Your Workforce For a Digital Economy at Scale with Strong ROI

May 15, 2020 1:53:05 PM / by Jennifer Robertson

With the significant unemployment levels in America and the sudden boost to digital transformation with the coronavirus lockdowns, there's a surge in a need to upskill or reskill the workforce.

McKinsey just published an article To emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis, companies should start reskilling their workforces now but they don't actually say HOW to go about doing this. Should companies create their own reskilling programs? Doubtful as their core competencies are not in education or learning but in what their companies does. They aren't versed in learning science and pedagogy, let alone in how to learn well online.

Should they invest in MOOCs for all? Doubtful again, because MOOCs deal with knowledge but not skills, and we're talking about reskilling for jobs where employees are expected to do, not regurgitate knowledge or pass small homework exercises.

Reskilling is About Skills, Not Knowledge

While the very word 'reskilling' gives an enormous hint at the point of the verb, we find that not everyone truly understand that skills does not mean knowledge. In today and tomorrow's world, companies are interested in what employees or potential employees can do: what skills they have, what tools they know how to use, and how they can prove that they're competent at doing, making, using tools, solving, contributing, and collaborating. They are not interested in people who can simply recite knowledge but haven't got the skills; that's evident by the skills gap that's been ongoing for the last 10 years.

In fact, the skills gap is arguably the worst in jobs tied to the digital economy. Junior software engineer roles - entry level jobs - demand 1-3 years experience, sometimes 5 years of experience. That is clearly not entry level! But companies are fed up (rightly so) with the lack of actual skill in software engineer of computer science graduates and don't want to spend the time, money, and resources training new grads to actually have the skills required to do the job of a Jr Software Engineer, so they simply demand years of experience to solve that problem.

When it comes to reskilling, the focus should not be on knowledge acquisition but on real, tangible and proven skill development and acquisition. Reskilling an employee with knowledge about software engineering or AI will not make them a good engineer. Skills take time, practice, and learning by doing to develop and refine: take sports or music as examples. Becoming a skilled basketball player takes hours and hours of practice, repetition, fundamentals and drills, and time spent simply playing.

When we talk about reskilling, we should be thinking in sports or music analogies: time, practice, and doing. This means companies are going to have to invest in order to actually succeed in re-SKILLing employees or potential employees. It's not an overnight transformation; it's not a 3-month transformation. It's much more significant.

Reskill Investments Should Develop Skills

McKinsey recommends identifying quickly the skills important for business recovery and survival; in a digital economy, it's highly likely that these will be digital skills. Whether it's upskilling existing talent or reskilling entirely, there should be a focus on skills mapping and development.

When you start to look at the skills required in your workforce, you begin uncovering higher cognitive functions than simply understanding a new topic area such as data analytics or web development or machine learning. For example, cognitive skills that the digital economy demands include:

  • structured problem solving
  • collaboration and teamwork yet individual resourcefulness
  • resilience and flexibility
  • the ability to see both the big picture as well as drill down into tasks
  • the ability to handle increased complexity and interconnectivity, understanding dependencies and architecture not just in a product but within an organization
  • creativity, innovation, and out-of-the-box thinking

Quite simply put, one does not develop problem-solving skills by watching a video, sitting in a lecture, or being given 6 simple tools to solve problems. You develop problem-solving skills by being given endless amounts of problems and having to find solutions for them! You have to live it, experience it, and do it! Any senior level executive should know this, because they likely have to do a lot of problem solving, especially CEOs. Founders tend to be problem-solvers, but the vast majority of the workforce are not necessarily problem solvers, yet this is what the digital economy and future demands.

Investing in any kind of reskilling solutions should undoubtedly have an element of learning by doing. Only investing in knowledge transmission solutions is a great way to kill your company. We're at a time when companies need innovative problem solvers up and down and across their organizations, which means that a lot of people are going to have to learn the skills required to keep their jobs and companies afloat.

Reskilling Needs to Scale

It sounds obvious, and it is: reskilling solutions need to scale. The World Economic Forum in January announced an initiative to drive reskilling of 1 billion people by 2030. Any company today looking at their workforce and how to survive the smack of digital transformation demands is asking how can I reskill at scale? (without breaking the bank)

Globally, we've known for a while that the demand for reskilling and upskilling is in the millions. There is certainly popularity among platforms such as Coursera and Udacity because they enable scaling, having removed the bottleneck of professors. They have not, however, solved for skill development, only scalable knowledge transmission.

Higher education institutions are often large, but they do not scale quickly or easily. They depend on professors or TAs to increase teaching, and still mainly offer knowledge transmission but not skill development. Regardless of what happens with higher education institutions in the next 18-24 months, reskilling the workforce by sending everyone back to get new degrees is not a realistic option; it simply takes too long.

Companies are looking for efficient ways to reskill employees or potential employees that scale and are low cost. Amazon announced just under a year ago their $750 million initiative to reskill employees by 2025 with a per employees training cost of $7500.

Here at Qwasar, our focus is on skill development in software engineering, AI/machine learning, data science/engineering, DevOps/Cloud engineering, and full stack development; the major areas that are in demand in today's digital economy. Thanks to our learning design, we have a low-cost structure and high skill development, and yes, we work with companies and governments on implementing training programs, currently at less than half the cost that Amazon's dishing out.

While dishing out $3000 per employee may seem like a lot, the real question is can you afford not to invest in reskilling? Times have changed, almost overnight, and as a recent Harvard Business Review article points out, digital transformation is about people, not technology. If business is now at a stage where technology, software, and data are the future, then as McKinsey rightly puts it: "a basic understanding of critical tech and data concepts and processes will be essential, including data visualization, applied machine learning, and advanced analytics." (Those are some of our learning tracks here at Qwasar, and for good reason, and they scale.)

Good and Bad Reskilling ROI

As with any significant investment companies make, there's a question of return. What's difficult with evaluating the ROI of a reskilling investment is that skills can be difficult to measure. It's not as simple as calculating ROI using the increase in widgets produced thanks to an investment in new machinery.

Measuring skills or skills assessments isn't really done when a learner finishes a training program because those who finish programs are generally given a certificate of completion, a recognition of passing, or something along these lines, so employers don't necessarily check what someone has actually learned or the new skills they have gained. They're not in the business of skill assessment anyways.

The ROI of a reskilling investment can still be identified. Here are two scenarious that illustrate the difference in different approaches reskilling solutions and investments:

Imagine that we have two workers Jane Doe and John Doe. They are two bank tellers who are currently on furlough because branches have closed under lockdown. Impending bank re-opening plans have moved much more activities online and reduced the need for tellers. Both Jane and John offered an opportunity to reskill by their respective bank companies into software-related roles since that's one of the greatest needs for the banks; they say yes.

John Doe is given an account for a MOOC or learning platform (perhaps even integrated with the company's learning management system), where he is given a series of courses to complete, starting with Introduction to Javascript and moving up to intermediate level web development. It costs the company $400.

Jane Doe is given an account for an active learning, project-based learning platform and is given a series of increasingly complex software projects to complete that resemble what a software engineer would do in real life. It costs the company $2500.

Both spend 7 months learning.

At the end of the 7 months, they are integrated into the software teams at each of their banks who are both working on new apps and virtual banking experiences to replace what tellers used to do.

Their assignment is to translate a given product idea (a small app) into technical specs and recommend an architecture, programming languages, hosting system, and scalable infrastructure that could be deployed for a few hundred thousand customers.

Jane Doe, having written thousands of lines of code, faced architectural challenges and decisions, completed multiple similar sized software projects, and grappled with tradeoffs for scale, speed, and cost, digs right in with no problem and presents a possible solution.

John Doe goes back to his videos and material and tries to come up with a plan, but since he's never actually built an app, deployed it to the cloud, or had to decide programming language and architecture, he takes 5 times longer to develop a plan and clearly doesn't understand the software development lifecycle. The cost of the delay is more than the $2100, the money the company didn't spend on the skills-based reskilling solution.

Needless to say, one bank will not only have a better app than other, they'll have it sooner, with less errors, and with more robustness than the first. Whether an employee has developed the skills or not will inevitably show up on the job: that's a realistic skills assessment that's naturally built in to a reskilling program.

Clearly, skills-based training is what's needed.

'Digital' Demands Greater Cognitive Abilities Than a Computer or Machine

What's largely behind the drive to upskill and reskill isn't just a major push from the coronavirus situation to digitally transform; at the core, it's about the capabilities and contributions of a human being versus a machine.

Much has been written about the 4th industrial revolution or Industry 4.0, including analysis of workers' skills compared to that of machines. Machines and computers, when they were first invented, replaced a set of tasks that were previously done by humans. Over time, the list of tasks that machines can do has grown, and since labor is expensive and we humans have to eat, sleep, and rest, we're more expensive than machines who can work 24/7 no problem. Speed up to today where there's increasing automation and a greater demand for machines rather than humans to perform tasks (be that cost-driven or health/sanitary-driven), the jobs where humans add more value than a machine are ones that demand significantly higher cognitive abilities that handle complexity, non-repetitive tasks, and context. This translates to the very skills we mentioned at the beginning of the article: problem solving, creativity, collaboration, and more.

Any investment in reskilling should undoubtedly be focused on developing these competencies, not just for the sake of now, but for the future of the workforce beyond the coronavirus situation. Those employees who learn how to learn, how to problem solve, how to be creative, and how to be flexible are the ones who will do well, and those companies with said employees are likely the ones who will survive the challenges in the years to come.

We wholeheartedly agree with McKinsey's article and what we're working on, building, and offering at Qwasar is designed to specifically address needs of companies, youth, and economies globally. While Andreesen Horowitch wrote an article on It's Time to Build, we propose that it's also time to reskill, using new learning models, not ones developed in the 19th century.

Jennifer Robertson

Written by Jennifer Robertson

Jennifer is one of the co-founders of Qwasar and is on a mission to make a difference via engaging education.

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