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Skills in the post-Covid era: Revolution or Evolution

Revolution or Evolution? The Shift in Skills Brought on by the Covid Pandemic

Back in 2019, the evolution of professional skillsets hit a rapid pace. In an article published in October of that year, CNBC discussed how competencies trumped credentials (or reimagined with the emergence of micro-credentials) and a shift in the marketplace towards skill-based recruitment was taking place. Then, on January 5, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a disease outbreak statement warning of a new form of pneumonia developing in the Hubei Province of China— and the world as we knew it changed forever. While the aftershocks from the pandemic continue to reverberate through all aspects of our lives, it’s left us wondering— what’s happened to our skill needs?

In the immediate aftermath of the initial COVID shutdown, the World Economic Forum found itself trying to assess the profound impact the virus was having on a wide range of disrupted industries and its accompanying, enormous human costs. Economic forecasters from every corner of the world started sounding alarms and painting dire pictures of unthinkable loss. Nearly two years later we’ve finally had the time to reflect and form some perspective on what it means for the future of labor skills. Below is our take on what the job market looks like in a post-pandemic world:

What Are Some Early Post-Pandemic Skillset Trends?

From strictly a skills perspective, things have not turned out nearly as doom and gloom as originally predicted.

The latest OECD report on the economic outlook signals that varying levels of recovery are underway in many countries. In fact, a few economies may have already recovered to pre-COVID levels which is pretty astounding if you consider where we were just 12 months ago. Part of this recovery is attributed to swift policy action and the fast development of vaccines. However, the rapid adoption of new technology and the enormous upskilling efforts undertaken in many industries also played a big role.

While the impact of the pandemic was unprecedented in terms of global economy, we have not seen the radical job disruption many predicted. For that to occur, according to Adam Boyton, Australia’s National Skill Commissioner, we should witness radical changes in both the structure of the economy and the distribution of jobs. Instead, there is an acceleration of trends that pre-existed before COVID hit.

In short? The content of some jobs has changed, but the overall number of industries growing pre-COVID is largely the same post-COVID.
Another interesting shift? The latest ILO Monitor report on COVID notes that the composition of global employment has shifted from smaller corporations to larger ones. This asymmetry meant that larger organizations in industries that were less impacted by the pandemic could actually witness an increase in productivity rates. An earlier study by McKinsey confirms that the industries showing more resilience (i.e. Semiconductors, Pharmaceuticals, Personal Products, Software, Tech Hardware, Media and Communication) are those that were already trending upwards before COVID hit.

The Remote Work Revolution

  Another interesting trend coming out of the pandemic revolves around people’s career choices and remote work. More and more workers globally are electing to continue to work remotely, and many organizations have given up mandates to return to a 5-day work-week in the office. Some companies started to pioneer this approach early in the recovery phase (Google), while other large organizations reversed their previously announced return-to-the-office policies (Amazon) more recently. Even traditional companies (PwC) are getting on the flexible work policy bandwagon.

And while it is still too early to assess whether the trends we’re seeing today will be short-lived versus more permanent solutions, eQ8 believes if this remote-work trend remains, it will permanently alter the distribution of jobs and cause radical changes to the economy.

The remote-work trend is already transforming industries—with broadband communication services seeing massive spikes in demand. At the start of the pandemic, the OECD published a report showing 40% surges in Internet traffic and sustained growth thereafter.

A Shift Towards Suburbia

Going virtual on a global scale will also transform the landscape of modern-day cities. Around the world, professional workers are moving out of large metropolitan areas and into quieter regional areas (aka the ‘Burbs). Major international hubs like New York, London, and Sydney already face quieter weekdays.

Interestingly, the decentralization of professional skills impacting the job market represents only one side of the coin. The exodus of office workers towards leafier neighborhoods has also impacted many retailers. The once bustling coffee shops, eateries and gyms in metropolitan cities became quieter; but local suburban businesses are enjoying a renaissance. As remote working proves successful and viable in the long run, it will create shifts in the job market where the boundaries for sourcing talent are no longer being defined by location. The world could really become our oyster.

Video Conferencing Excelled By COVID

However, this also changes the way jobs are done and the skills employees need. By far, the biggest impact on the way we work today versus the way we worked pre-COVID times needs to be attributed to technology.

In May this year, the ONET, a free online database of occupational information sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration (USDOL/ETA), updated the list of technology skills required for 141 occupations. The top scorers amongst the new entrants in the list of Hot Technologies extracted from job postings are all video conferencing software: Google Meet, FaceTime, GoToMeeting, Google Classroom to name a few. Zoom, and similar video conferencing software, represent the perfect example of how technology can augment our capabilities and transform the way we work. Since the start of the pandemic, Zoom adoption has skyrocketed and although the volume of users is not growing as fast as at the start of the pandemic it is still rising. Zoom is not going anywhere.

To be effective in this brave new world requires reshaped skills. Communication, traditionally a soft skill, has now become harder. 'Hard is soft. Soft is hard.’ management guru Tom Peters noted. A recent study by Stanford University also confirms that cognitive load is higher when we communicate over a screen. In a predominantly virtual world of work, verbal and non-verbal communication needs to be adapted for virtual settings.

Even Universities are adapting their teachings based on this new video conferencing landscape. Oxford University’s business school launched a module on virtual negotiation that teaches students how to build trust through communication media that lack the usual social cues we send in face-to-face meetings.

Reflections For The Future Of Skills

Video-conferencing platforms made remote work possible by bringing people together in a period of forced isolation. While the idea of “togetherness” was touted, it turns out that virtual meetings do not equate to connectivity that in-person affords. Recent research from Microsoft shows that after having endured endless virtual meetings for prolonged periods of time, people actually do not feel that included. In order to address this issue, the company has recently published a “Getting [Zoom] meetings right” guide.

  This change in the way we work means that employees will need to spend time adapting to the new reality and work on expanding their skillsets. This means not just acquiring new skills or scaling up, but also moving sideways. According to Adam Boyton, there’s currently a premium on existing skills while the development of new skills is lacking. Julie Toth, Ai Group Chief Economist – an Australian think tank, noted that, up until now, the most common skill acquisition strategy in the corporate world has been through hiring. In the future, we might see companies adopting other strategies such as increase of part-time hours or looking at upskilling older segments of the workforce.

Final Thoughts

COVID continues to change our lives in many ways and both employers and employees need to adapt to this evolution. The time for employers to begin developing long-term strategies to successfully navigate the complexities of the times ahead is now.

So where do you begin? With the development of a strategic workforce plan focused on skills. The eQ8 SWP platform includes a Skills Forecasting tool that allows organizations to assess the abilities of employees outside formal learning pathways. By integrating external skills forecasts with the organization’s own demand requirements, skill need has clearer context. Companies can really optimize their investment in pipelines of employee skills. Now that we have perspective on the pandemic, we can lift our gaze to the future. The silver lining is that may professions have more work choice IF they can master new skills needed. Organizations that get the clearest picture of this will thrive.


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