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For workers, 'digital upskilling' puts tech trends on fast-forward

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By Chris Taylor
This year has taught us a lot of things, but here is one major 2020 lesson: Tech skills are a virtual necessity.
With much of the workforce cooped up at home for eight months or so, many of us have had to get increasingly tech-savvy in a hurry.

There is even a term for it: “Digital upskilling”.

Patricia Miller works for management consultants PwC in Tampa, Florida. She signed up for the firm’s “Digital Accelerators” program that aims to boost the high-tech skills of its workforce.

As a result, she went from previous roles in human resource and project management to become an IT operations team lead.

“I didn’t even code prior to this program, and now every time I get to use my coding skills like Python, I do a little happy dance,” Ms Miller said.

Digital upskilling is not new: Amazon announced a $700 million initiative to boost the digital skills of its workforce last year. PwC rolled out its own $3 billion program, and a flurry of other corporate giants from Nationwide to Home Depot to IBM are all doing the same.

The Covid-19 pandemic pressed the fast-forward button, however, accelerating a tech shift already taking place.

“Since the pandemic started, companies are fast-tracking their embrace of digital technologies,” said Gianni Giacomelli, chief innovation officer at business transformation firm Genpact, and head of innovation design at MIT’s Collective Intelligence Design Lab. “They are enabling people to learn wherever they are, whenever they want, on any device.”

It stands to reason that equipping employees for the digital world would have positive bottom-line results.
According to PwC’s Global Digital IQ survey, 86% of top-performing companies reported that digital training programs boosted employee engagement and performance.

So what tech skills are we talking about, exactly? When careers site LinkedIn analyzed job openings for sought-after skills this summer, its tech-heavy top 10 list included data science, data storage technologies, tech support and digital literacy.

In fact, LinkedIn has even set up a training hub, in partnership with Microsoft ( It offers free training resources for the top 10 jobs with the greatest number of openings, steady growth during the past four years, a livable wage and skills that can be learned online.

Those in-demand gigs include software developer, digital marketing, IT admin, and data analyst.

“Before there used to be tech jobs, and non-tech jobs,” said Joe Atkinson, PwC’s chief products and technology officer. “Now there are just ‘jobs’, and everyone needs to have comfort with technology.”

The real challenge in digital upskilling lies in execution, especially if you are talking about large companies with thousands of employees. Making an entire workforce digitally savvy, especially when the latest technologies are changing all the time, is a bit like herding cats.

A few guidelines:
A lot of employee learning just does not get done because the task can seem so massive and daunting. So make learning easy, accessible and universal – such as PwC’s “Digital Fitness” app, which is not only internal but available in public app stores.

“If you ask an employee to find six hours for a learning effort, that’s really hard,” said Atkinson. “But if you ask them to find 15 minutes, that’s a lot easier. That bite-size approach can make a big difference.”

Having an employee learn a tech skill alone on a computer is nice, but that’s not going to drive big transformation across a firm. Instead, you have to think about collective intelligence and how staffers interact, said Genpact’s Giacomelli.

“Create opportunities for employees to source knowledge and learn from each other,” he said.

Use the human brain as a model for information transmission, Giacomelli suggested. The central nodes are experts (the masters), and the branches around them are the learners (the apprentices).

"Then activate it, like a brain’s neural network connects across parts of the brain,” Giacomelli added.

This might sound counterintuitive, but the particular tech skill you want to learn – a coding language or a software program, for instance – is not as important as the habit of learning itself.

“Don’t worry too much about whether or not you are studying the right tech,” said Atkinson. “Just keep learning about subjects you are passionate about, whether it’s data visualization or coding or blockchain or virtual reality. Because the tech landscape will look completely different in three to five years.”

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