Upskilling: How to Recession-Proof Careers in the Age of COVID-19

One solution for the unemployed, or employees hoping to maintain job security in their current positions, is to change roles—or even careers. Upskilling gives workers an advantage in the race to acquire stable careers during these challenging times.

Although economists have been forecasting a recession for several years, no one could have predicted the source of the current downturn—or how quickly the economy would crash. The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced immediate closures of non-essential businesses around the world to prevent the spread of the deadly Coronavirus, also left crippling unemployment and a massive recession in its wake. As of May 2020, the U.S. unemployment rate was at a staggering 14.7 percent, with 30 million Americans out of work from the effects of the pandemic. The Pew Research Center reports that “43 percent of U.S. adults now say they or someone in their household has lost a job or taken a cut in pay due to the outbreak.”

Although at first those job losses seemed temporary, the scale of the economic crisis has left many businesses on the brink of bankruptcy. As restaurants reopen, for instance, it is not at full capacity, to allow for social distancing. And consumers—even those with the financial means—are unlikely to return quickly to their previous dining habits. Workers in those businesses may not go back to their positions in the future.

One solution for the unemployed, or employees hoping to maintain job security in their current positions, is to change roles—or even careers. Upskilling, or acquiring necessary job skills, gives workers an advantage in the race to acquire stable careers. As reported in the Harvard Business Review, “90 percent of workers feel they need to update their skills annually just to contend”—and that was pre-pandemic. In the past, individuals facing unemployment may have sought a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. This is an alternative if you have a long-term focus and resources. But for those people who want/need to get back on the payroll as soon as possible, there are much less expensive, faster, and arguably more lucrative methods of obtaining the skills necessary to pivot into a recession-proof career.

Investing a few months in continuing education to upskill and reskill can improve the chances of employability, especially in a recession. It is a small commitment over the course of an entire career, and the skills can provide a much-needed safety net in this time of uncertainty. 

1. Certifications. Many organizations, including Association of Supply Chain Management (ASCM), offer certifications that provide the knowledge and skills necessary to pivot into a more stable career. According to a DHL research brief, “Demand for supply chain professionals exceeds supply by a ratio of 6:1.” And the importance of a functioning supply chain has never been more evident than it is today as consumer demand for groceries and delivery services continue to escalate. ACSM provides free online access to Basics of Distribution and Logistics. This online module teaches the fundamental concepts required to create an optimal distribution and logistics strategy, and is a great way for people outside of the supply chain field to explore their options. For those who decide they want to pursue this path, obtaining an APICS certification will fast track them into a supply chain career. ASCM offers two APICS certifications (CPIM and CLTD) for which a college degree is not a prerequisite. A third certification (CSCP) is more geared toward those who are already in the field and want to advance their expertise. A survey conducted by ASCM showed the median salary for respondents with an APICS certification is 25 percent higher than those without.

If changing careers isn’t an option, there are many certifications that can improve marketability and stability in an existing job. CompTIA, for example, offers IT professionals certifications in various programming languages and other transferable skills, which can open the door to a greater variety of unfilled positions.

2. Individual courses. If you’re not in the market for a certification, there are plenty of opportunities to take courses to build your skill set or learn a new one. Companies such as Coursera, Skillshare, and Udemy offer online classes in everything from marketing and data analysis to entrepreneurship and public health. Committing a few hours or days to mastering a new subject may allow you to pivot to a similar role in a different industry. At the very least, completing courses demonstrates a personal commitment to furthering your career.

3. Digital skills. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “Nearly two-thirds of the 13 million new jobs created in the U.S. since 2010 required medium or advanced levels of digital skills.” Clearly, digital skills are more necessary than ever for obtaining a job and earning a better salary. The Brookings Institute reports that “employees are rewarded for the depth and breadth of their digital skills through increased wages. Workers in occupations with medium or high digital skills in 2016 were paid significantly more than those in low-digital occupations.”

Essential tech skills may be as simple as using cloud-based spreadsheets and presentations; or they may be more advanced, such as JavaScript or supply chain management software. Employees may be able to access trainings in these skills through their organizations; job seekers can find lessons online through a courseware provider, such as Codeacademy, via LinkedIn or YouTube, or directly through the software company.

4. Soft skills. Executives, industry managers, and recruiters all cite the lack of soft skills as the biggest deterrent in finding the right candidate to fill open positions. The DHL report points to “leadership, strategic thinking, innovation, and high-level analytic capabilities” as needed in supply chain careers. Entrepreneur magazine cites “connectability,” or “the authority you exhibit, the warmth you convey, and the energy you exude and bring out in others.” Essentially, the ability to collaborate effectively with other team members, manage tasks and people, and maintain friendly relationships within the organization are all important factors to securing a job.

Acquiring these skills, however, is a bit more nebulous than training in a concrete task. But improving soft skills often comes down to one thing: communication. Many of the most-needed attributes thrive with in-person interaction, but even in the era of social distancing, workers can improve communication via video conference, e-mail, and real-time chat. Exercises in creative expression, online collaboration, and teambuilding games are all ways to practice problem solving and build leadership skills. These are useful tasks for workers who are still employed and trying to become indispensable, but they’re especially valuable for job seekers. As social isolation and remote work continue, the ability to communicate effectively while navigating the unknown is more important than ever.

Abe Eshkenazi, CSCP, CPA, CAE, currently serves as the chief executive officer for the Association for Supply Chain Management (ASCM). Eshkenazi has provided business, operational, and compliance consulting services to professional service organizations, associations, and tax-exempt and government organizations. ASCM is a global leader in supply chain organizational transformation, innovation, and leadership. As the largest nonprofit association for supply chain, ASCM is an unbiased partner, connecting companies around the world to the newest thought leadership on all aspects of supply chain. For more information, visit: www.ascm.org.

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