In the years following the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of effort will go into analysing companies who came out on top. The ones that didn’t just survive, but somehow pivoted and thrived. Some of these are clearly examples of pure, cosmic coincidence—Australian hand sanitizer manufacturers like Nowchem, who shipped 72,000 litres of product to China alone, spring to mind.
But others feel different. Tech companies like Zoom and Slack, along with bleeding-edge telehealth brands, were arguably ahead of the curve already—they just leapfrogged about 10 years’ worth of slow, patient market growth. In these cases, COVID-19 didn’t fix a broken business model. It supercharged one that was already there.
"On March 13, the new Medicare items were announced and we all went into isolation. On March 14 we had a 400 to 500 per cent increase in requests," says Dr. Silvia Pfeiffer, co-founder of telehealth start-up, Coviu. "Within a week we had a 10,000 per cent increase in traffic. We had been doing about 400 calls per day prior to COVID-19, but that leapt to more than 25,000.”
Were companies like Coviu lucky, or just prescient? This raises certain questions for businesses. Given the next decade looks to be even more unstable than the previous one, what’s the best way to prepare for inevitable disruption? And who is really responsible for that preparation? Is it employers, who owe their staff certain development opportunities, or the staff themselves, who reap the benefits from skill training, without being tied to any one particular company?
Career development and upskilling into future-proof fields like AI, machine learning and data analysis are definitely motivational drivers for employees. Some studies say career development is the number one factor influencing loyalty, ahead of leadership, managers and even pay. Unfortunately, there’s a divide in expectations.
On the one hand, 74 per cent of employees say it’s the company’s responsibility to provide training and prepare for disruption; 71 per cent also believe employers should help identify job opportunities and career paths. On the other hand, you have employers. Most managers, 98 per cent according to some studies, say it’s up to workers to continually update and improve their skills. Not the company.
“Managers and employees often point the finger at each other when it comes to taking responsibility for poor career development planning,” says Jay Titus from EdAssist. “There needs to be more honest conversation between the two sides about what the end goal should be.”
The end goal, some would say, is a company that’s prepared for market disruption, and a workforce that feels fulfilled and challenged, with a future-proof skillset to match. Unfortunately, for many Australian companies, this isn’t quite the case. According to RMIT Online research, 49 per cent of businesses sidestep the responsibility argument all together by hiring new employees to plug skills gaps. Only 45 per cent of Australian businesses mediate the issue with education and internal professional training. This is despite the fact that the cost of replacing a bad hire within six months is, on average, two-and-a-half times the person’s salary. Over 15 per cent of businesses surveyed had no means of addressing their skills gaps at all.
This paints a pretty dire picture. There’s a well-documented tech skills shortage in Australia—our analysis predicts the country will need an additional 156,000 digital technology workers by 2025. And the big question right now is: whose responsibility is it to close, and pay for, that gap? Businesses, or employees?
As always, the answer is probably: a little of both. Businesses have a responsibility to their shareholders, but also to their staff. On the flipside, employees need to take control of their career and seek their own opportunities. The good news is, these two goals are mutually compatible. Upskilling employees and preparing for disruption isn’t just a question of good culture—it’s good business. Over two-thirds of professional employers believe that the benefits of staff training are shared equally between the individual and the company.
And then there are ancillary benefits, like lower attrition rates. According to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workforce Learning Report, 93 per cent of employees said they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their careers. “We need to stop thinking of our need to hire skilled, qualified, promising talent as a talent war. It’s not a war,” Meghan M. Biro wrote in Forbes. “We’re all in this economy and this market together. We’re a global, hyperconnected, continuously streaming, networked, noisy, hybrid workplace. Better to see hiring, engagement and retention not as a way to win a war but a way to celebrate the remarkable world of work we have become.”
Employees and employers are on the same side here. The most efficient way to prepare for disruption is training and upskilling your staff, and research suggests that’s also the best way to keep those staff around. This keeps costs down and profitability up. If businesses want to get serious about future-proofing, they need to see their staff, not as a drain on resources, but as a resource in their own right. When employees improve their skills, it’s a net win for everybody.