June 2020 Guest Opinion: Upskilling in this Changing Digital Age in the...

June 2020 Guest Opinion: Upskilling in this Changing Digital Age in the Wake of COVID-19

June 4, 2020

Quin Bradley

Robert Joseph, Ph.D.

Stacey Young Rivers

In the pre-pandemic world, we had the luxury of time: time to plan how and when the next technology would be integrated, decommissioned, and replaced. Since the emergence of COVID-19, the world has been forced to rethink, retool, and adapt to how we move forward. COVID-19 has impacted our lives in ways we would have never imagined and left evidence of scars, treasures, and enlightenment. It has also created the need to learn faster, be more agile, adaptable, and emotionally resilient in the face of the unknown. It has transformed us into quickly developing online learning platforms to help fulfill the gap of upskilling showing us the light at the end of the tunnel. Most of all, it has thrust us out of analysis-paralysis and into a mode where we must make decisions with the information we have, in the moment, and without the luxury of time. As a result, we have achieved new learning practices never thought possible.

COVID-19 has impacted our lives in ways we would have never imagined and left evidence of scars, treasures, and enlightenment. It has also created the need to learn faster, be more agile, adaptable, and emotionally resilient in the face of the unknown.

As we attempt to move forward, it is imperative to identify how COVID-19 is changing the landscape in at least three major ways:

  • The need for a more agile approach to upskilling workers to be more resilient has been highlighted. For example, the 2018 Deloitte and Manufacturing Institute report found that in the next decade 2.4 million jobs may be left unfilled because of “shifting skill sets due to the introduction of new, advanced technology and automation.” This has been accelerated according to a McKinsey article in April 2020, and resilience and efficiency are the new norms.
  • More people have had to realize the importance of learning, for their survival, and have had to embrace technology, and become more resilient as outlined in an article at CNBC – 13 ways the coronavirus pandemic could forever change the way we work.
  • Technology for virtual communication, education, and coordination have become mainstream during this time, allowing people to take advantage of resources not bound by time or location. According to another McKinsey article, “The learning landscape has changed in ways that will foster teaching new skills to employees, wherever they may be. COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of fully digitized approaches to re-create the best of in-person learning through live video and social sharing.”

Upskilling Challenges

The educational system that people are currently exposed to is not designed in a way to enhance self-learners in this fast-changing information age. There is a need to rethink the learning process and answer this new norm. Just as the world will not return to the way it was, now is the time to remake the way upskilling is executed. The points below highlight some of the major components that make upskilling learners a challenge:

  • An Educational System Based on The Past
    Our educational system was conceived in the Industrial Age. In a recent talk by Sir Ken Robinson, he states that education is “trying to meet the needs of the future by doing what we have done in the past.”
  • An Educational System Based on One Size Fits All
    In the current educational landscape, people go through the learning process like that of a production line. The learner’s age determines what they learn and when they learn it. Based relatively on age learning, there is mainly a standard approach to the curriculum design, and as stated by the Atlantic about our current educational system, “The reality is that schools go by age.”
  • Most People Don’t Complete Self-Directed Curriculum
    For self-directed learning courses, the percentage of completion is between 5 – 35% for shorter less expensive courses. Compare this to undergraduate college degrees at private institutions with graduation rates is 64% – 2 to 12 times higher than non-traditional education.
  • Organizations Are Slow to Transform Current Learning Practices
    Because learning is not a one-size-fits-all solution, companies are not approaching learning as a personal choice. Due to the pandemic, learning has shifted from face-to-face instruction to a total online solution, resulting in new challenges for employees to transition their preferential mode of learning.

  • Ambiguity Exists for Identifying Skills Gaps
    As skills’ needs shift based on business demands, how organizations determine their gaps can vary. Further, supporting employees to understand their skills gaps is imperative when closing the gaps and problems that most companies have not yet solved.

As IT professionals and educators, the authors of this paper believe that some of the low performance we are experiencing is due to the ever-increasing growth of information and the changes in technology. These factors give people a feeling of inadequacy, ultimately not being able to keep up based on traditional learning techniques. The learner is left with feelings of apprehension (“This is all new to me”, and “Where do I start?”), frustration (“Why is this taking so much time for me to get it?”) and self-doubt (“Will I be able to learn what I need to?”).

Upskilling Re-Examined

The question is how can one take advantage of the new norm, accelerate learning while incorporating critical thinking, resilience, and agility? The answer centers around empowering the individual to be better learners. Some parts of the framework are in place with online learning classes, more acceptance and use of online resources (video conference, online training), and the awakened recognition of retooling skills needed to become a lifelong learner.

Support People to Become Efficient Learners

The answer is helping people to get out of their way. In Dr. Crum’s Ted Talk, research explains that what a person tells themselves can make a profound difference to their ability. This change can be physical as well as mental. The mind can mold who and what you are: “Our Mindset Matters.

The other tool to develop your learning ability is to recognize the mental models, your internal view of the world, that you are using, and extend and generalize those models. James Clear, best-selling author states, “the secret to great thinking is to learn and employ a variety of mental models.” This gives you the ability to be more adaptable and to learn faster.

Design Training So People Can Plot Their Learning Needs

Provide people with the tools to expand their knowledge of a subject area and help direct them to what they should learn. Helping people to develop deeper understandings and formulations of mental models can create the ability of ownership to guide one’s education.

Utilizing methods for learning that offers people the ability to explore their curiosities encourages adoption and ownership. This is one reason why Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been a disruption in higher education. Thousands of people visited the first MOOC in 2007 out of curiosity, and now millions consume information through this model. Learners can plot their learning needs by the access it provides to content. Its structure allows people to effectively assess information based on their needs and schedule.

Create a Learning Culture

In the book Smart Thinking by Art Markman the chapter on “Creating a Culture of Smart” he states “You are strongly influenced by people around you.” He goes on to say: Encourage people to learn more about thinking” and “create an environment in which smart habits thrive.” The road to upskilling is based on developing the culture and the habits for upskilling to be more than just skill development but a cultural shift in being a lifelong learner.

Lifelong learning is not a new concept; however, this new era has created a platform for using these principles to build a learning culture.


COVID-19 has had a profound impact on the world. It has highlighted areas to improve and provide an environment for change. To continue to compete in this new normal, learners have to become more agile in how they approach the learning process, in being more adaptable and confident in the face of the unknown. This allows companies to innovate faster, and heighten learners’ ability to adjust to the change, resulting in everyone achieving a positive penetration the overall bottom line. From the authors’ perspective, the pivotal keys that have been outlined in this article. What are your thoughts about learning in this post-pandemic era of COVID-19 and how will those thoughts in upskilling help you approach a winning formula within this brave new world?

Quin Bradley is Chief Customer Officer for Team Mindshift, a company focused on upskilling employees in this new digital age. 


Robert Joseph, Ph.D. is Former Director of Industrial Strategy for Industry 4.0 and a Data Scientist for a Fortune 500 manufacturing company, Educator, and MIT & CMU Alumni.


Stacey Young Rivers is Director of Tech Human Capital Management for a global media company and a Ph.D. Candidate in Education at Mercer University.