COVID-19 Upskilling: How to Help Future-Proof Careers During a Pandemic

The increased quality of online learning and the rise of modular credentials has made historic barriers to education, such as cost and time, less of a problem.

Among COVID-19’s many harmful effects, America’s workforce is currently reeling due to the unstable economy. At the end of July, the national unemployment rate was 10.2 percent, which is lower than its 15.1 percent peak in April, but still significantly above the 3.5 percent rate pre-pandemic. With many Americans losing their jobs, getting furloughed, or facing pay cuts, COVID-19 has impacted some people’s life choices, including how they think about their future career and education decisions.

As part of a recent edX survey exploring this topic, 58 percent of respondents said COVID-19 has directly impacted their decisions to seek additional education. While 56 percent of respondents would like to pursue additional education, more than half of those people stated they will not right now due to costs. In contrast, 26 percent said they are currently more likely to pursue additional education because they want to find a recession-proof job.

This strain on employees is nothing new—if anything, COVID-19 has simply brought it to a head. In recent years, the digital economy increasingly has caused the job market to evolve, and many workers—especially those who are in low-skill jobs or less educated—are worried about their jobs becoming obsolete due to advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. In a previous survey from edX focused on reskilling trends, more than one-third of consumers stated they have experienced a lack of proficiency in at least one new skill or subject area of a job they’ve held. The pressure to upskill is compounded by the pandemic, making working Americans stressed on top of potentially dire financial straits.

Breaking Down Barriers

It’s clear Americans are hungry for learning and development opportunities to improve their job security, but concerns such as cost are stopping many from getting the education they want and need. This desire for additional education is not surprising as this same trend occurred following the economic recession in 2007, with many Americans seeking advanced degrees to better position themselves in the job market. However, the main difference between the last recession and now is that the increased quality of online learning and the rise of modular credentials has made historic barriers to education, such as cost and time, less of a problem. Affordability, flexibility ,and relevancy have never been more crucial when it comes to higher education, and online learning provides all of the above.

Another perceived barrier is that nearly half of employees do not feel comfortable asking their employer to help pay for learning costs, according to a previous edX survey. Companies should look to offer their employees online learning opportunities outside of their traditional training and development initiatives. These small investments will pay off for companies in the long run as these types of courses can help employees stay competitive, learn new skills, and future-proof their careers in a tough market. Additionally, offering these courses can help boost staff morale and engagement, which are more prone to suffer during a recession and pandemic.

While it’s important to provide these opportunities during difficult times, offering them long-term is the most ideal for both businesses and workers. For example, Postmates started partnering with edX last year to offer courses to its fleet workers. When the pandemic hit, it was much easier for Postmates to quickly scale course offerings to its fleet workers since the company already had the program in place. The number of Postmates fleet workers enrolled in these courses jumped 19 times from February (pre-pandemic) to late June, showing how interested employees are in taking advantage of these opportunities, especially during difficult times.

What Skills Do Employees Want/Need?

While the scope of the program will vary, consider which skills your employees need most or would be most interested in, and offer courses in those areas first. For example, there is currently a big skills gap in the data sciences, a skill set that is growing in popularity and importance across markets. In the reskilling survey, 39 percent of respondents stated they felt less proficient in data skills with an emphasis on analytics and computer science. Business and soft skills were another area highlighted in the survey where more than one-third of employees report they are lacking, and which will continue to be a crucial element of successful remote work. These are two areas in particular that employers should consider offering online courses in.

We’ve found that once a company commits to a skills development program, employees embrace it as an opportunity to prepare for the next big thing. It has a positive effect on retaining talent, too. As businesses rely on new technologies such as machine learning and AI, it’s critical for their workforce to be ready to support the initiatives with the right skill sets. For companies unsure what the future holds for them and their employees, online programs can be a quick and accessible investment to make in their people.

Employees are looking for help, and companies have the power and responsibility to help them during the pandemic and beyond. Not only is this an economic responsibility for employers, but it’s also a moral and societal responsibility. By taking steps now to future-proof employees and the future workforce, companies, communities, and the economy will prosper.

Adam Medros is president and co-chief executive officer at edX, overseeing the day-to-day management of edX’s operations and driving the growth and expansion of edX’s learner base, platform, and product offerings. Medros brings extensive operational expertise to power edX’s innovation and growth at a global scale. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and German with Honors from Dartmouth College. Follow him on Twitter at @adammedros.