Blog and news
January 26, 2022

An emerging landscape of skills for all

As the economic fallout from the pandemic become clearer, issues of upskilling and reskilling are also moving up the agenda. While governments are often the first in view, the corporate role is vital. The experience of work itself is a major developer of skills: 94% of business leaders said they expect their employees to pick up new skills on the job (which represents a sharp uptick from 65% in 2018) in a recent survey.

But at present skill development programs are mostly targeted at those already in highly skilled jobs. Lower-skilled and lower-paid are where churn will most likely take place. For those in lower-paid work, the transitions associated with this churn are particularly hard, since they require access to the often scarce resources — time, money, and attention — to reskill. 

As a humanistic psychologist, I start from the position that most adults (whatever their pay grade) are motivated to learn. This human drive will turn out to be crucial in the face of the massive job churn ahead. So the real motivational kicker for corporate executives is to create a learning infrastructure that enables and encourages people to harness this innate human drive.

Executives have to take three actions:

(1) Make developmental pathways visible so that employees know how to connect to higher-paid work.

(2) Leverage learning habits by making low-cost training available at scale.

(3) Invest in skill development opportunities not only for current employees but for the supply chains and communities as well.

Harness visible ‘escalators of mobility’

For many people, on-the-job experience itself is what helps them develop new skills. But it turns out that jobs don’t all have equivalent skill development potential. Some are like escalators — the experience of being on them moves you up. But others are cul-de-sacs — dead-end jobs that take you nowhere. 

“Gateway” jobs have been identified as customer service, sales, advertising, computer support, vocational nursing, welding, and machining. What these jobs have in common is the development of foundational, often “human skills,” such as listening, communication, empathy, judgment, and decision-making. It turns out these skills play a key role in unlocking the value of technical skills. Indeed, without them, individuals cannot entirely utilise their technical skills. They are also valuable over a lifetime of work.

Companies can both identify these gateway jobs to create escalators for workers. IBM now deploys a chatbot called Myca (short for My Career Advisor) to converse with employees about their current and future skill development, identifying their skill profile, showing them gateway jobs, and highlighting how the skills gap can be filled. Telecommunications company AT&T, is investing more than $200 million annually to develop a suite of training programs for staff, sparking more than 4,200 career pivots for staff and allowing the company to fill more than 70% of jobs internally.

Invest in leveraging new learning habits

Escalator jobs help make a difference but are rarely enough. Extra skills training is needed in a low-cost, scalable way. The COVID-19 pandemic has opened up an opportunity in this regard as people have become more familiar with online learning and virtual collaboration with work colleagues. This has sparked growth in the digital learning market and secured wider acceptance — both at the corporate and individual levels — of online skills training.

I spoke with Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of the online education platform Coursera, at the beginning of the pandemic. At that point, enrolment in China, Japan, and Italy was already up by over 300% — with courses on public health dominating. Since then, it’s become ever clearer to Maggioncalda and his team that new learning habits are being created amid a new way of working. As he put it, “There has been an amazing amount of sharing and a new spirit of accepting new things.” 

Partner in building the whole skills ecosystem

Governments like Singapore’s are able to look across the whole skills ecosystem of a region or country in order to understand the dynamics of the labor market and know where best to invest in supporting job transitions. 

Executives take a more insular approach focusing solely on their own company and their current employees. This can also work against the long-term success of the company. In a tight labor market for skills, the pipeline of future employees (and consumers) is as important to companies as their current employees. And when we take a wider look at this, there is the question of corporate social responsibility. Billions of people are in need of better, higher-paying, higher-mobility jobs. Companies can play a crucial role in looking beyond their own boundaries to confront this desperate need on a global scale.

This perspective led the executive team at Microsoft to launch a global initiative in early 2020, aimed at bringing more digital skills to 25 million people worldwide. Leaders worked with job posting data from LinkedIn and the skills profiles emerging from millions of developers on code-sharing platform GitHub to build live data streams.

This information created a deep understanding at a granular level of in-demand jobs while profiling and clustering skill sets. The result was a navigation system for people motivated to upskill. Then, to support those on the escalator, the team at Microsoft worked with a range of suppliers to provide free access to learning modules, low-cost skill certifications, and free job-seeking tools. In addition, Microsoft donated $20 million in cash grants to support non-profit organizations worldwide that are committed to supporting upskilling.

As we move forward from the pandemic and contend with an economic recession, the issue taking center stage will be how workers — across the whole pay and skills continuum — are motivated and enabled to learn new skills. To make this happen, executives need to encourage employees by mapping those escalator jobs that could make a real difference, and make significant investments in providing resources that support those who are motivated to learn.

We will be looking at this issue as part of the new Pissarides Review into the Future of Work and Wellbeing, for which I sit on the Steering group.

A version of this article was first published by MIT Sloane Review.


Professor Lynda Gratton


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