Race for new skills to stay afloat


Quickly adapting: Computer screens at ETX Capital in London. Learning new skills has become imperative to cope with the disarray caused by the coronavirus. — Bloomberg

LONDON: Learning new skills is taking on greater significance at manufacturer Zero Point 8 in the United Kingdom’s industrial heartland. For workers, it’s about staying employed and healthy. For the company, it’s about keeping afloat.

Social distancing rules that dictate production can only continue safely if workers are two meters apart means splitting them into two shifts. Some staff at the plant have had to rapidly retrain to cover the roles usually performed by others.

It’s all part of a bigger battle for the business. With hundreds of thousands of pounds of orders postponed, the maker of bespoke retail and commercial interiors is entering the health care sector in hopes of getting through the crisis.

Staff there are just some of the workers racing to learn fresh skills, as the coronavirus crisis triggers millions of jobs cuts and threatens the deepest recession since the Great Depression. More than one billion workers are at high risk of a pay cut or losing their position, according to the International Labour Organization.

The impetus to rapidly adapt during the pandemic comes amid a more general need for repositioning as technology fundamentally alters the workplace. The World Economic Forum had already estimated that at least 54% of employees in major economies will need reskilling or upskilling by 2022 if they’re to be ready for technological advances.

Employees lucky enough to have kept hold of their jobs in recent weeks are mastering virtual working or taking on new tasks as their companies seek alternative business in a global economy turned upside down. Those laid off are upskilling as they seek new roles and make use of their enforced time at home.

That demand drove a 135% jump in demand at London-based Circus Street for online digital skills training in March.

“We’ve never seen figures like this, ”said chief executive Richard Townsend. “The pandemic has sharpened their focus. They’ve realised the need to learn new skills.”

The broad shift means that a traditional school education is no longer serving people for their lifetime. The UK’s Industrial Strategy Council has warned that up to two thirds of workers could fall short of even the basic digital skills required by 2030, meaning many will need to embrace the concept of lifelong learning to stay relevant.

At Zero Point 8 in Dudley in the UK Midlands, immediate concerns meant teaching staff to manufacture transparent “sneeze screens” to protect dental surgery staff out of acrylic - a material that only one worker previously had the knowhow to handle.

“We have employees here that have had to learn, ” CEO Mark Baker said. “It was a very small part of what we did, but it’s now become very large in the last week.”

“A lot of companies are offering upskilling, ” said Carly Adams, a Hong Kong-based executive at Robert Walters Plc, a white-collar recruitment firm. “Clients are coming to us and asking, ‘look, where is the market going’?”

Access to training isn’t easy for everyone, particularly lower paid workers and those without social security nets. Income losses will be above US$220bil in developing countries, and an estimated 55% of the global population have no social protection, according to the United Nations.

For small and medium-sized enterprise already struggling to stay afloat, cost is also a factor.

“You can’t do it in one day, it takes time to train staff, ” said Edward Lam, who runs Hong Kong clothing retailer, Delicron, a family-owned business in operation for more than 50 years.

While Lam is not letting workers go, he is looking for savings where he can. “It is the worst situation I have ever seen, ” he said.

For freelancers, the problem is just as acute. The FRED company, a London-based creative agency, started seeing corporate photoshoots canceled as early as February, meaning no work for the people it usually hires. Instead, they’re using their time to get themselves ready for a post-coronavirus world of digital work and online conferences.

“Everybody is learning anything they can, ” said creative director Rosie Collins. “I’ve got three artists coming back to me at the moment saying ‘I now know how to use this programme, or this programme if you need it’.”

The accelerated push for new skills comes as jobs are shed everywhere. US jobless claims are running at 15 times their average this century. In the UK, claims for Universal Credit welfare benefits have surged.

Anit Hora, owner of Mullein and Sparrow, a Brooklyn-based vegan skincare company, had spent eight years getting her business exactly where she wanted it when it was all shaken up by Covid-19.

About 80% of sales are wholesale, but widespread retail closures have seen that drop to nearly zero. She and her staff of four had to immediately pivot, shifting to online-only and selling directly to consumers.

She increased advertising on Facebook and Instagram, and now analyzes traffic to her website in her spare time. She and her team did crash courses in email marketing and social media advertising using online seminars and tutorials on Shopify Academy, the platform that hosts her website.

“We had to retrain everybody, ” she said by phone from her parent’s home on Long Island, where she’s staying during the pandemic.

“It’s a whole new world.” — Bloomberg

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