Upskilling your workforce should remain a key priority even in an uncertain world

18 June 2020 PwC

Companies focused on expanding their employees’ skills and are ahead of their peers on the upskilling curve, are more optimistic about their future, according to research by PwC.

The PwC report – Talent Trends 2020 – Upskilling: Building confidence in an uncertain world – was conducted before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the insights are still relevant, if not pertinent in the current climate. The report reinforces the fact that a people-centric approach is key in building the trust that people need when faced with disruption. Companies that invest in their people develop stronger cultures and are more confident of their future success.

Talent remains a recurrent issue for CEOs. This year, before COVID-19 spread, nearly three quarters (74%) of CEOs globally said they were concerned about whether they would have the talent they needed to ensure a sustainable future for their organisations. This compares to 79% in 2019 – confirming that the concern over skills remains high on the agenda for CEOs globally.

Barry Vorster, PwC’s HR Technology and Culture leader, says:

“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, business leaders were struggling to find skilled and experienced talent. In the current climate, businesses still face the challenge of filling skills gaps. The skills that were hard to find before won’t be much easier to find now. Finding people with the right skills and the right cultural fit will be even harder.

“The competition for talent is unlikely to abate and it is vital for leaders to continue to focus on developing skills. It is for one a more cost-effective approach. There are immediate issues in the workplace that need to be addressed: workforce safety and well-being are the top priority for business, as well as managing costs. In many industries, people may need to be reskilled and redeployed and some will face the anxiety of being made redundant. The question is how we make short term decisions whilst keeping a longer-term future in mind. How do we avoid the knee jerk decision made during previous crises?”

Upskilling delivers more than skills

The most immediate benefits of upskilling relate to corporate performance and purpose, with 41% of CEOs globally (compared to 31% of CEOs in South Africa) saying that their upskilling programme has been ‘very effective’ in creating a stronger corporate culture and engaging employees. This rises to 60% of CEOs within the subgroup of organisations that have invested more significantly in their upskilling programmes.

These benefits of upskilling improve over time, with 30% of CEOs globally (compared to 14% of South African CEOs) saying it has been effective in improving productivity, 30% (South Africa: 17%) saying it has accelerated digital transformation and 28% (South Africa: 17%) saying it has helped improve talent acquisition and retention.

More than a year ago, 46% of CEOs identified retraining and upskilling as their best option for closing the skills gap in their organisation but this year only 18% of CEOs say they have made significant progress. 36% have made ‘some progress’ and one in ten of the largest companies say they have made no progress at all. The four key areas that CEOs found challenging in delivering an upskilling programme were holding onto upskilled talent, what skills to teach, motivation and inspiration, and cost.

What skills to teach

Defining exactly which skills an organisation will need in the future was already proving to be a significant challenge for CEOs, especially in sectors predicted to be most disrupted by digital technology. This includes financial services and healthcare, where 16% named it as their biggest challenge (compared with 12% of all respondents). Given the changes forced on businesses by COVID-19, CEOs are seeing both the challenges and possibilities of moving to more digital and virtual models. The skills organisations need today — creativity, problem solving, an understanding of how digital technology can be used — and in the future are a moving target.

Chantal Maritz, Strategy& Digital Transformation Lead at PwC South Africa, adds:

“For some organisations, surviving the impact of COVID-19 will require redeploying workers to critical roles. Rapidly reskilling and supporting workers to take on different roles — ones which they’ve never been trained for in many instances — will be the difference between success and failure.

“Businesses will need their people to have the right skills to be able to fully contribute to their companies’ success. In the long term, upskilling will raise employees’ productivity as digital transformations progress and more people find themselves working alongside machines. In the short term, reskilling will be necessary to allow people to operate in the new roles that are created by the COVID-19 crisis.”

‘Talent Trends 2020 – Upskilling: Building confidence in an uncertain world’ is part of PwC’s 23rd Annual Global CEO survey trends series. PwC conducted 1,581 interviews with CEOs in 83 countries between September and October 2019. To download the full report, visit

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