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Last year online learning platform Coursera released their first Global Skills Index to try and understand the changing nature of skills development around the world. The report builds upon the Skills Benchmarking tool developed by the company to help organizations not only understand the skills they have, but how their workforce compares with their peers.
Last year’s report revealed that European countries led the way in the development of skills, with the companies in the United States appearing to focus their energy more on recruiting the talent they need rather than developing it. The outbreak of Covid-19 has changed most things, so is the same true of the skills landscape?
The first notable trend from the report was the relative insulation provided by high skills to the impacts of Covid-19, both from an individual and organizational perspective. In many ways, this should come as no surprise, not least because previous research has highlighted how low-skilled jobs are disproportionately more likely to be affected by the Covid-19 lockdown measures, because they tend to have to be performed face-to-face and therefore cannot be conducted remotely, as so many knowledge-based jobs can.
What the report does make clear, however, is the clear link between skills and organizational performance. Cousera’s data shows that across all skill domains, the link between proficiency and stock returns is 43%, with this level of return largely enduring during the Covid crisis.
They suggest this might in part be because digital skills have been so important in effectively responding to the crisis in the short-term, and will be so important in transforming businesses to respond to the aftermath of the crisis in the longer-term. They believe this transformation will include everything from managing change to the automation of processes that can no longer be safely performed in person.
“We’re likely to see a huge amount of disruption in the labor market in the coming years, with existing jobs lost to economic and technological factors, and new jobs created that will require new skills,” Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera told me recently. “It’s really sad that many of the jobs that are vulnerable to automation are also vulnerable to Covid-19, so if you look at industries like retail, travel and leisure, and food services, they might not come back, so you’ve got to reskill people to take advantages of the opportunities of the future.”
Skills for the post-Covid world
Data from the UK’s Institute of Coding suggests that this is taking place. They revealed a tenfold increase in enrolments since lockdown measures were introduced in March, with a significant number of these students either actively looking for new work, or existing students looking to bolster their qualifications before entering the labor market for the first time.
This surge not only reflects the ongoing interest in digital skills development, but also some of the softer skills that I’ve identified as key in past articles. For instance, courses in communication, interpersonal skills, and collaborative working were all hugely popular. This trend was reinforced by the Coursera data, which revealed a 1,200% increase in enrollments onto courses in areas such as mindfulness and stress management.
Despite this growth, focus remains on business, technology, and data science skills among organizations, with around two-thirds of the enrollments by governments and companies being in courses teaching these subjects. Despite widespread interest across industry, it remains to be seen whether smaller businesses are getting on board with this shift in focus.
I’ve written a few times recently about the drag on productivity caused by the uneven spread of the latest technologies, both in terms of regional adoption and adoption among smaller businesses. The scale of the challenge is underlined by new data from Oxford Economics and Intuit QuickBooks, which builds on the Digital Opportunity for Small Businessesreport that was published in March.
The data highlights the rapid adoption of various digital technologies by small and medium-sized businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic. The report highlights how should this trend continue, it could raise British GDP by £4.1 billion per year.
“We find that the recent adoption of digital tools goes beyond compensating for the potential loss in productivity, as workers adjust to working remotely,” the authors say. “In some cases, the recent changes have contributed to productivity by reducing the need for time consuming administrative tasks, and may have even allowed people to work more flexibly and efficiently.”
Digital skills cover a huge range, however, and the report highlights how much of the developments among SMEs has been at the lower end. For instance, Covid-19 prompted many of the 50% or so of businesses without a website to get one for the first time, while many others have adopted technologies such as video conferencing and collaborative communication tools.
Despite the relative simplicity of many of the new tools being adopted, 86% of the businesses surveyed say that the digital transformation has changed how their businesses operate in a significant and beneficial way, with most suggesting that these changes will be permanent.
Crucial for a successful recovery
Investing in skills development has a number of clear benefits, with Coursera not only suggesting that countries see a $600 boost to GDP per capita for each percentage gained in proficiency in any given skill, but also that these countries see lower income inequality and higher labor force participation.
It can be tempting to assume that any kind of digital skills development has to focus on skills at the cutting edge of the digital spectrum in order to be effective. Those skills are undoubtedly crucial, but it’s also important to remember that many firms lag some way behind those at the cutting edge, and even seemingly basic developments can produce significant improvements across the entire economy.
“In our own business, we’ve gone from having all of our IT on premises to having them hosted in the cloud, which is a great equalizer as small businesses can have the same resources as a large business,” Maggioncalda says. “Google Analytics, for instance, allows small businesses to be as savvy with their marketing as a big company, so providing the skills to interface with these software as a service tools can be hugely valuable. We’ve seen that investing in skills can improve the inequality among individuals, but it can do the same between big and small companies too.”