The business case for reskilling your workforce

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Africa Nkosi, Khonology's business development director.
Africa Nkosi, Khonology's business development director.

A report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) proposed that well over 65 million employees are at risk of being displaced by artificial intelligence and automation in the next few years. The World Economic Forum (WEF) paints a gloomier picture, predicting some 75 million displaced jobs by 2022. Gartner forecasts that by next year, AI will eliminate 1.8 million jobs. And McKinsey reports that automation will render a wide range of skills obsolete.

With all of this in mind, the pressure is on for employees and organisations to adapt, says Dr Roze Phillips, futurist, medical doctor and the group executive for People and Culture at Absa. “When people don’t stay relevant, employees have skills organisations no longer need and they lack the skills required for business success.”

This is why reskilling is essential. Reskilling is centred around learning, unlearning and re-learning, adds Phillips. It’s about supporting the workforce so that people can learn new skills that are deemed either critical or necessary for the future world of work.

Great talent always wants to learn more, says Africa Nkosi, Khonology’s business development director. The benefits of reskilling include creating a more innovative culture, increasing retention because people feel they can apply themselves even more as they learn more, and improving your services/products because there is a renewed hunger to work better.

Reskilling goes beyond upskilling, says Benedict Khohliso, director of IT and systems infrastructure at the Eastern Cape Department of Education. Upskilling is about augmenting existing critical skills to keep up with shifting trends and processes. Reskilling, on the other hand, implies the development of completely new skills so that an employee can do an entirely different job.

Both allow organisations to tap into talent that’s already inside your business, adds Andreas Bartsch, head of service delivery at PBT Group.If we understand that the market requires new skills to unlock the full potential of new digital technologies, then we also understand the need to upskill and reskill to become more future-ready.

Gearing up for change

Whether you’re upskilling or reskilling, change agility is key, says Jasmin Pillay, HR director for Microsoft South Africa. The differentiator for companies today is the ability to learn rapidly and change quickly in response to market forces. “Only the learners will survive, constantly reskilling and upskilling to match the skills in high demand. Therefore, we need to focus and invest in developing the muscle to learn.”

Rise of the liquid workforce

For Sage’s Gerhard Hartman, the old days of ‘one person, one job’ are increasingly giving way to a more fluid workplace, where teams are assembled for projects and then dismantled once the work is done. And these teams comprise a mix of full-time members and freelancers or contractors sourced on-demand. As such, talent is increasingly becoming a variable resource, rather than a fixed one, as organisations realise that hiring a full-time resource doesn’t always make sense when they have the freedom to tap into top talent if and when they need it.

Perhaps the most important skill in the process of reskilling and upskilling is change management, agrees Khohliso. Change management provides a model to help organisations prepare their employees for situations when older systems are discarded in favour of newer, better ones. Resistance is inevitable in any change process, he cautions. As such, it’s important that change leaders are adept at guiding, inspiring and educating teams for seamless transitions into newer, more efficient ways of doing things.

According to Talitha Muller, Future of Work Programme manager at Deloitte Africa, reskilling helps businesses manage change much more effectively as it equips workers with the skills to work with new innovations and handle new ways of working. But before implementing any reskilling or upskilling plans, businesses must take the time to clearly define work outcomes. Once these outcomes are established, business leaders can decide what tools and strategies need to be put in place, she advises. “Jumping ahead to reskilling the workforce or redesigning the workplace without understanding the shift in technology can create chaos and confusion.”

Successful reskilling demands that businesses develop a targeted approach to new skills development, ensuing that training is relevant and fit for new purpose, adds Genevieve Koolen, SAP Africa’s HR executive. “When we reskill those who are at high risk of redundancy, we must do so with a laser-sharp approach to meet very specific goals and standards. This allows us greater control over the end product,” she says. “Furthermore, it allows us to handpick employees who have the right attitude, growth mindset and knowledge of the business already and provide them with new skills to apply in situations they’re already familiar with.”

Training 2.0

The speed of digital change is so fast that the old approach of training staff once or twice a year isn’t enough to keep their skills and knowledge current, states Gerhard Hartman, medium business VP at Sage for Africa and the Middle East. What’s more, the pace of work today makes it difficult for people to free up the time to attend courses to stay ahead of the game. So, while the old approaches will always have their place, it’s important to also deliver experiential, bite-sized, in-the-moment learning as people do their jobs. This could take the form of mentoring from colleagues, building tutorials into the applications people use daily and even embracing immersive technologies like augmented and virtual reality as training solutions.

When people don’t stay relevant, employees have skills organisations no longer need and they lack the skills required for business success.

Dr Roze Phillips, Absa

The beauty of reskilling is that it allows organisations to access a wider pool of talent, notes Emma Durkin, head of human capital at Altron Karabina. How so? Well, in a scarce skills environment, employers are all fishing in the same small pond, hoping to reel in the same talent. But with the rise of reskilling, clever employers need no longer focus on hiring people who have work experience in their specific industry. According to Durkin, they can pinpoint other industries where the right skills can be found and recruit people for skills rather than experience. These businesses can then reskill candidates into the new role. This is a particularly relevant approach in South Africa, where we have a massive unemployment problem and we have the chance to work with people from other disciplines that aren’t traditionally associated with IT.

But who is responsible?

The experts agree – when it comes to reskilling, the responsibility has to be shared.

The individual is responsible for their own learning to completion and success, HR assists in facilitating the process and business leaders monitor performance to guarantee that these new skills are actually being implemented, says Ntombi Mphokane, HR and transformation executive at fintech firm, e4.

The softer side of things

We as humans have to recognise that machines can’t be empathetic. Sure, some chatbots can pick up indications of stress and complexity with callers and then escalate the case to a human operator, but this doesn’t mean the chatbot is empathetic or that it engaged in a compassionate type of conversation, says Bryan Hattingh, founder and CEO of exponential leadership firm, Cycan. Machine learning and AI hold incredible potential, but soft skills – like complex problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, and adaptability – remain a critical part of delivering greater customer experience, which, in turn, engenders increased loyalty. Reskilling is about valuing and cultivating these uniquely human skills so that they can be used in combination with new innovations and technologies. 

For Sage’s Hartman, responsible leaders will look at the potential effects that displacing humans will have, not just on their organisation, but also on wider society. They need to take an inventory of the job roles and skills in their organisation to understand how they line up with their future needs. Where possible, they should be helping people with legacy roles transition to the digital era.

Redundancies just show a lack of planning or foresight on behalf of the organisation as they failed to predict the demise in need of certain skills and failed to provide the newly needed skills to their existing workforce, adds Oracle South Africa’s strategic business solutions engineer, Rob Bothma. Similarly, as the ‘owners of talent’, HR must ensure that the right training material is available and ‘pushed’ to the relevant employees in order for them to start the reskilling process.

Reskilling is and always has been a part of ICT sector, says Prof. Barry Dwolatzky, director of the Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE). As digital technology evolves (usually very rapidly), some skills (or parts of skills) that an individual has will become redundant and new sub-skills need to be added. ICT professionals need to engage in life-long learning and continued professional development. 

Adrian Schofield, production consultant at the IITPSA and author of the 2019 JCSE-IITPSA ICT Skills Survey report, agrees. According to the survey, almost 100% of practitioners who responded felt they should be reskilling themselves, and 95% of employers felt that they had a responsibility to reskill employees to meet the demands of the new digitalised environment. Upskilling and reskilling should be part of the career progression for any individual, says Schofield. It may be self-motivated, or facilitated by the employer (or both).

Only the learners will survive.

Jasmin Pillay, Microsoft

When an employee realises that changes in their field of employment can lead to redundancy, they should investigate how to add new skills to their portfolio, he says. This may be through online courses, part-time education at a college/community centre or through vendor training programmes. But businesses also need to step up, notes Schofield. Senior management must identify employees who will be affected by the loss of existing roles and develop a plan to ensure they receive the required support to acquire new skills.

Reskilling (and upskilling) are critical for any organisation looking to respond to technological changes, stresses Absa’s Phillips. Unless you’re looking to replace the majority of your workforce – regularly – your business simply won’t be able to respond to digital disruption without reskilling.

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