Upskilling your workforce is vital to ensure your business is future-ready
If a company's greatest resource is its workforce, then investing in the future of its employees is a strategic opportunity to instill a culture of continuous education. Strengthening the resilience of an agile employee base can ensure no one is left behind.
Joe Atkinson, vice chair and chief products & technology officer at PwC U.S.
Developing an employee's digital and technical skills is an attractive way for employers to generate capabilities that will be vital for the future. Also, levelling up employee skills can be felt beyond the company's physical (and remote) walls. As a recent World Economic Forum-PwC report noted, "…if upskilling initiatives become widespread and inclusive, more workers can raise their own productivity, leading to better job options, which in turn helps reduce wage inequalities, in particular those created by skill-biased technological change."
To learn more about the value of upskilling and digital transformational opportunities, we spoke to Joe Atkinson, vice chair and chief products & technology officer at PwC U.S.
In light of the pandemic, how has the shift to a hybrid work model changed how business leaders manage their workforce?
There are different dynamics at play with a hybrid work model. The challenges managers need to address include keeping people connected and motivated. It's also about helping them with mental health and wellness. Building teams is also dramatically different from what we saw pre-pandemic. From the employee's perspective, they are seeing a lot of upside, such as having the ability to manage their schedule more thoughtfully.
Can you explain why the opportunity to bring upskilling to the workforce is important today?
Upskilling is all about either enhancing important skills or delivering a set of skills in a new area that employees may not have thought they have the capability to perform in. So often those skills are in technology, but they can also be in financial or operational or management areas. There used to be jobs and tech jobs. Now there are just jobs.
I think the ability to navigate through our current environment and to solve the problems that need to be solved today requires a different set of skills. Employers have an obligation to cross that bridge and also make that bridge available. Otherwise, they end up with a workforce without sufficient skills to take their business where it needs to go. They'll be stuck with demotivated employees who don't have skills that are relevant to the organization. Upskilling is an investment in employees, but it's also a business investment.
You wrote on LinkedIn: "We need to help those entering our workforce figure out the bridge between what they need to do and what they want to do." Can you elaborate more on what this means for employers interested in leveraging upskilling strategies?
One of the challenges of digital natives coming into the front end of the workforce is how there are so many opportunities in front of them. Some individuals want to go further and faster than they have the capability to do, and we as employers owe them experiences to help them create the platforms to grow their careers. Employers can help new entrants to the workforce by building the resilient muscle needed to help drive their career. It's all about employers providing them with experiences to give them that opportunity, and that's the bridge.
Look at how the pandemic exacerbated that gap between the technologies used at home compared to what they use in the office. They want consumer tech in the office that they have been enjoying at home, and employers and technology leaders have to bridge that gap.
So why is it more valuable for employers to opt for upskilling their current workforce as opposed to hiring talent that would provide those specific skills needed today?
The market is really hot for digital skills, and not enough employees have them. In the U.S. alone there are half a million or more technology jobs that can't be filled. The motto that many of us noticed when entering the workforce 20 years ago was "skills atrophy," but today the value of talent to an organization is fundamental to management teams. Business leaders want to help their employees continue to grow rather than leave them in dead ends.
Can you share a few examples of how a business can use engaging learning opportunities to enhance the digital skills of their employees?
On the PwC side, our core business is providing professional services to our clients as well as consulting services, and what we saw across our business is the capability for our employees to have strong digital and technical skills, as well as business acumen. All of our engagements with clients require them to have strong data skills since we pull a lot of information for them in order to provide the analyses they seek from us. When we asked various PwC teams how they spend their time, we found that upwards of 60% of those efforts focused on acquiring and preparing data for analysis. We believe if we can bring that number down — and make the preparation of data smoother and faster — we can unlock the capacity of our teams to better provide insight and accomplish what clients expect of us.
We proceeded to train around 40,000 people in 18 months on core data skills — acquisition, visualization, bot-building and task automation. You can't solve problems with technology alone; you need human-led tech power. You have to engage humanity in a way so they aren't intimidated by the technology being offered to them, but instead are empowered by it.
On the client side, we noticed that they often struggle with the inability to get enough resources in areas such as agile development, data sciences and UI/UX. Adopting an upskilling model can unlock some of their talent to accomplish those things that are found in the marketplace.
It's clear businesses should foster a workplace culture of ongoing education and skills development, but what are some actionable steps they can take to develop these systems?
Business leaders should think about the skills they are going to need. They don't need to look ahead 10 years from now, but about three or five years from now. They should have an unbiased, objective, clean-sheet perspective on whether they are providing employees with opportunities they need, and it begins by asking them — and listening to them.
Equip employees with the pathways to learn about technologies important to the business, whether that's cloud-based innovation or AI or something else. And realize there doesn't have to be a big-bang digital transformation to get those employees on their paths.
What is most challenging for businesses to overcome if they embark on these types of strategies?
One of the big roadblocks to the efforts around transformation is executive fatigue. "So, we're doing this again, but will it be different than the last transformation we went through?" In this environment of upskilling, the factors around transformation may be different than three years ago, such as the speed and pace that technology is being deployed in cloud environments.
It's worth noting that the anxiety some of us had about adopting certain technologies isn't as apparent as before, due to how the pandemic encouraged us to be brave about experimentation. We may not always have that luxury after the pandemic, and organizations need to take advantage of that experimentation capability to overcome future roadblocks centering on anxiety that employees may have with other technologies in the future.
Also, these efforts don't come cheaply, and there can be the challenge of making the upfront prioritization decision and understanding return. Organizations need to step back and look at what return looks like — and what that impact on business looks like. Digital and tech is so integral to the way business gets done that business goals have to ensure digitization is embedded within them.
Finally, what do you find most fulfilling about working on these initiatives for PwC?
The best part of being here is seeing how PwC is a talent engine for people's growth. To watch employees transform their own careers and how PwC empowers them to do that, it's incredibly rewarding and very energizing.
When it comes to upskilling, it's a lot of fun to see that when people are equipped with the right skills, technology and vision, they can do amazing things. Most C-suite executives have a million pressure points on them and they may think there is a risk that upskilling will be the millionth and one. When they start to recognize that upskilling is not about adding a pressure point but empowering their employees to take a number of those pressure points off their desk, that is a rewarding exercise to witness.