The impact of COVID-19 and the economic downturn on professional development
What does the pandemic mean in terms of skills in demand, how has it effected people's employment and employability, and what kind of learning do people need? With insights from Associate Professor in Sociology and Social Policy, Irma Mooi-Reci, we explore these pressing questions.
Shifting workforce trends in the pandemic era reflect acceleration of certain forces, disruption in others, and the emergence of totally new drivers of change (Gartner, 2020).
While the full impact on the labour market isn’t yet clear, COVID-19 and various restrictions imposed to contain the virus are affecting the type of skills in demand; certain people's employment and employability; ways of learning, and the demand for education.
The role of professional development is currently two-fold: helping people adapt to different ways of working now and supporting long-term career recovery.
As Associate Professor in Sociology and Social Policy, Irma Mooi-Reci says, “there is a strong positive correlation between employment instability – meaning unemployment and inactive spells – and career fragmentation in the future.”
“Results from my own research using the Hilda survey in Australia reveal periods of career instability lead to no full career recovery. So, previously unemployed people are more likely to experience longer and more repeated spells of unemployment in the future than those continuously employed."
Minimising the time people are out of work and ensuring they have the skills to stay employed will be crucial to labour market recovery. In Australia, where unemployment is expected to rise to 10 per cent later in the year (Chalmers, 2020), this matters.
People want to learn
In line with historical trends showing people turn to education in times of recession, demand for learning is high. The education and training sector currently has one of the highest levels of business confidence in Australia (Roy Morgan Business Confidence Index, 2020).
Undergraduate and postgraduate enrolments are expected to rise considerably in 2021, and post-professional learning is being taken up by many.
At the University of Melbourne, applications University-wide for the second half of 2020 have increased by 23 per cent from 2019. At MSPACE, applications for accredited courses are up 38.6 per cent for the same period.
At LinkedIn Learning, downloads of certificate-eligible classes in professions like accounting, project management and IT increased more than 600 per cent since February. Enrolment in micro-degrees and professional certificates at EdX increased by six to 15 times (Weber, 2020).
But what is the demand for? Who needs it? And how might professional development be changed as a result of COVID-19 and the health and socioeconomic crisis it’s triggered?
In terms of motivation, the recent shift from internal factors (career progression or personal development) to external factors (namely, the half-life of skills) looks to be accelerating. This is because as businesses cut costs, technology is rapidly taken up and the way products or services are made is reconsidered in this changed environment, so upskilling is required simply to retain or gain employment (Weber, 2020).
As economists say, workers laid off during a crisis generally don't get hired back unless they have the right new skills (Weber, 2020). In a recent Gartner survey of learning and development leaders, 71 per cent said more than 40 per cent of their workforce need new skills due to changes brought on by COVID-19.
When tasks and responsibilities change quickly, as they do during business disruption, roles become less useful as a proxy for required skills. As a result, HR talent-planning focuses on specific skills needed to drive competitive advantage (Wiles, 2020). The trend towards a skills-based workforce is gaining traction.
Reflecting this is the Department for Education, Skills and Employment’s new online tool, Skills Match, which focuses on individuals' skills to find a job and suggests how to acquire missing ones.
Associate Professor Mooi-Reci says this is the best approach for seeking stable employment too: “Training for an entirely new role is inefficient and leads to longer spells out of the labour market. Stick close to your role or sector. Or choose based on tasks.”
From soft skills to sector-specific: equipping for a post-COVID world
Remote working, working in COVID-19-safe ways and shifting business activities online is increasing demand for both digital skills and soft skills across the board. As a recent Gartner survey revealed, almost three in four CFOs plan to shift at least five per cent of previously on-site employees to permanently remote positions post-COVID-19 (Agrawal, De Smet, Lacroix, and Reich, 2020).
“Given the digital revolution and technology governing our work, having an understanding of the digital environment will be more and more of a basic skill,” says Associate Professor Mooi-Reci.
“Cognitive skills like problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, project management, and analytical skills will also become more and more important given the amount of data being produced. We need to know how to extract it, use it and interpret the information in a meaningful way.”
Other soft skills on the rise include leadership – to manage and motivate teams remotely and in crisis, and to reskill and upskill the workforce to deliver new business models (Agrawal, De Smet, Lacroix, and Reich, 2020). Adaptability is identified as critical for a future Australia (CDA, 2020). Resilience is being prioritised as much as efficiency (Gartner, 2020).
As new work practices and trends intersect with certain sectors, demand is also driven for industry-specific skills and specialised knowledge.
In education, teaching online is crucial – which of course educators had to rapidly adapt to at the start of 2020. But what was a huge experiment then, notes Associate Professor Mooi-Reci, will need to be finessed for long-term change. “Harnessing technology and offering digital training programs to employees will be important. University staff will also need to learn to teach in blended modes and deliver more diversified lectures, contribute to different cognitive level of students, and match students with employers faster.”
Similarly, the health sector had to quickly respond, learning on the job to work with health care technology (such as telehealth) and provide safe remote diagnosis. The opportunity now is to hone these skills for a more strategic and sustainable practice.
The expansion of e-commerce means retailers need to reach customers remotely, facilitate secure and easy payment and provide efficient delivery. In government, policymakers need to update their crisis management and prevention skills.
“Much of what went wrong in Victoria during the second wave of the pandemic was partly driven by policy inefficiencies. This means policy makers may need to develop new skills to ensure policy making and crisis management are more resilient and efficient in the future. For example, policy analytics, policy management and analytical skills are likely to become more important skills for policy making in the future.”
Many of these skills shortages existed long before the pandemic, “but now both employers and employees are pushed to think of new strategies to address these more rapidly. All of these skills are essential for people to develop now and for the future of work.”
At the level of roles, those in demand are frequently evolving. Clinical nurses and dentists are two positions that have seen recent job ad growth.
Equipping young people and women
Those who may need professional development most are young people and women, since they make up a large proportion of people hardest hit with job losses. According to an Australian Bureau of Statistics business survey, the six key industries that reduced staff hours most due to COVID-19 are hospitality, education, health, retail, arts and recreation, and administrative and support services.
Hospitality, retail and arts, and recreation employ 45 per cent of young people, compared to 27 per cent of other age groups. Young people are also more likely to work casually, which negatively impacts their financial situation and curtails their ability to swiftly return to prior jobs (Dimov, King, Shields and Kavanagh, 2020).
Research by The Australia Institute shows the number of Australian women employed fell 5.3 per cent between March and April (compared to 3.9 per cent for men); their hours worked also fell faster (11.5 compared to 7.5 per cent) (Bagwell, 2020).
“If the sector they used to work in doesn’t have a future or is much more limited after COVID-19 – think of travel – they may need to reskill to be re-employed. Or they’ll need to retrain for a new industry.”
Women, says Associate Professor Mooi-Reci, are also "most heavily and negatively impacted by spells of unemployment. Although they may find employment, recovery slows down and eventually stops or decreases.” (Manzoni and Mooi-Reci, 2018, 2020).
The moment is virtual
As we’re all too aware, like many face-to-face activities, learning switched swiftly online. Since both students and instructors have experienced that this can be highly effective, there are predictions there will be a mindset shift and new openness to how upskilling can be achieved (Kang, 2020).
Group-based, instructor-led training and even one-sided webinars have moved to mobile-first learning and virtual, group-based experiences. Instructional content presented digitally is being done in a far more engaging way (Kang, 2020).
This has been more challenging for certain areas, such as fine arts and music, engineering and science because of the need for access to performance, rehearsal and studio spaces, workshops and labs.
Teaching and learning beyond convention
For higher education, increased demand for certain skills, a large group of young people in need of training and the necessity of online learning continues to pose challenges. Staff capabilities, current teaching and business models, and capacity – including the job losses universities have and are imminently facing – mean tackling changes will be trying. But there are also opportunities.
As well as access to a new market – important given the predicted drop of up to 50 per cent in international student enrolment by mid-2021 (Maslen, 2020) – this is a chance to redesign teaching and learning in dynamic, student-centered, empathy-rich ways with a mind to the skills needed to succeed now, and in the future (Bortolin, 2020).
Distance learning, for example, has been an opportunity to expand flexible learning modalities, setting the stage for a sustained shift towards more online learning in this sub-sector in the future (Policy Brief: Education during COVID-19 and beyond, 2020). It can also provide greater accessibility to more diverse cohorts and build capacity of staff and faculty.
The environment also encourages new thinking around tailoring higher education to industry needs and connecting learners to the labour market. Bringing on industry practitioners to teach (Baron, 2020), co-creation, assessment panels including industry, on-site activities and having industry provide resources are just some ideas for achieving industry alignment.
To succeed, experimentation must become the norm. Whether it’s financial models or delivery format, innovation (grounded in data and theory) allows you to go beyond the conventional to find new solutions (Melnyk and Kontowski, 2020).
Innovation at the University
For the University of Melbourne, one way to overcome current challenges and embrace opportunities is through MSPACE. With part of its strategic remit to broaden access to the University and diversify revenue streams from traditional revenue sources, the School works with faculties to develop new programs utilising academic expertise and responding to market needs.
Shorter approval processes, expertise across all areas of professional development, and commitment to innovation and industry collaboration support this. For example, a host of new Melbourne MicroCerts (including Strategy in a Disruptive Environment, Cybersecurity in Organisations and Effective Leadership Communication) were recently developed and launched in considerably shorter timeframes than accredited qualifications.
As the impact of COVID-19 becomes clearer, innovating with faculty on new ideas will become more seamless, helping people access the knowledge and skills they need, and helping the University manage a significant economic hit.
If you think your teaching and research aligns with MSPACE ‘s remit, reach out to our Academic Program Directors to explore new course opportunities for post-professional learners.
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