The COVID-19 crisis rewrote the script on how people work and the way companies deal with their customers. Forced to work remotely because of lockdowns, employees have geared up to use communications technologies that were just beginning to make inroads into the workplace. Companies, meanwhile, scrambled to serve their customers through greater use of digital tools that were planned for sometime down the road.
Think of it – nearly every business task went online during the pandemic. Digitalization accelerated to embrace video calling, new methods of file sharing and innovative workflows. Maintaining or improving customer service meant earlier-than-planned adoption of technologies as varied as artificial intelligence in claims handling to property inspections by drones.
All of this means that the demand for skills that most thought would be valuable several years down the road has appeared ahead of schedule. The case for reskilling is more important than ever in the massive acceleration from physical to digital solutions in the world of work and it will require the efforts of all stakeholders – individuals, companies, educators and governments – to ensure that no one gets left behind and the uneven playing fields created by “digital divides” are leveled.
Time to get busy
The World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs Report 2020” concludes that the “future of work” has arrived early, thanks to the pandemic. The report, published in October 2020, said 84% of employers surveyed were planning to rapidly digitalize work processes as they significantly expanded remote work.
Reskilling and upskilling were expected to be offered to just more than 70% of their employees by 2025, according to the WEF report. However, it notes, employees need a nudge, with just 42% indicating they would take up employer-supported reskilling and upskilling opportunities.
Employers aren’t alone in the obligation to make sure people are properly skilled. The public sector has a role as well. The report notes that only 21% of businesses said they were able to use public funds to support employees through reskilling and upskilling. It points to a need for the public sector “to create incentives for investments in the markets and jobs of tomorrow, provide stronger safety nets for displaced workers in the midst of job transitions and to decisively tackle long-delayed improvements to education and training systems.”
The issue of supplying people with the digital skills goes well beyond employee training. There is the problem of the so-called digital divides that have created the “haves” and “have nots” of the digital age. There are hundreds of millions of people around the world without access to reliable broadband services and far more – almost 4 billion by some estimates – that lack Internet access altogether.
This digital inequality is felt most in poorer countries but is also present in less-privileged sectors of developed nations. There have been far too many reports, for example, of schoolchildren who lack computers and Internet access that would allow them to participate in online classes. We have to find ways through corporate and private-sector collaboration to address these societal issues and ensure that digital tools and training are provided to those in our communities who need them.
A shared responsibility
Skilling the global workforce requires a commitment from all employers to use the power of technology to help improve the lives of everyone, regardless of their circumstances. People who are at risk because of obsolete skills must be supported. Employers have to be diligent about providing the right tools, training and support. As a global insurer and multinational employer, Zurich understands this obligation to ensure people prosper in an increasingly digital society.
Supporting and encouraging learning is a cornerstone of our 2021 people strategy. We have made significant investments in learning platforms and programs, and have introduced practical workforce planning tools to help define the skills of tomorrow. We have a number of youth employment initiatives around the globe aimed at helping young people develop the skills of the future. Our vocationally focused apprenticeships are important for young people looking to build practical skills as they enter the world of work.
As the WEF report notes, “We find ourselves at a defining moment: The decisions and choices we make today will determine the course of entire generations’ lives and livelihoods. We have the tools at our disposal.”
Let’s make sure we use them wisely.