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Do employees have the skills for the post-pandemic future?

Ellis Henican

Why growing talent is better than buying it as COVID recedes

Eight million New Yorkers have already been vaccinated. The CDC says it's safe for them to take off their masks, a proposition the state is weighing now.

So when can we all go back to the office? And what will we find once we get there? Will employees have the skills and education they need to thrive in the post-COVID era? That's a big, open question that forward-looking executives are only now coming to grips with as the after-pandemic future is slowly defined.

"A big part of the answer," says Charlie Schilling, "is growing the talent instead of buying it. And COVID speeds everything up."

He should know. As enterprise-business president (North America and Europe) at the Mumbai-based business education company Emeritus, Schilling talks about this stuff all day long. Emeritus partners with MIT, Columbia, Wharton, Harvard, Dartmouth, Cambridge, and a couple of dozen other brand-name universities around the world, connecting their instructors and targeted course work to returning professional learners from the likes of Deutsche Bank, (DBK.XE) HSBC, (HSBA.LN) DHL, (DPW.XE) Microsoft, (MSFT) Rockwell Automation (ROK) and Vodafone (VOD.LN). A veteran education technology executive (veteran status is conferred quickly in that burgeoning field), Schilling has also done time at General Assembly, Bloomberg and the Boston Consulting Group.

But as markets stabilize and the employees return after a year and a half of lockdown, are corporate workforces prepared? Everyone knows Zoom (ZM) now--but what vital skills don't those office workers have? How will companies match their people with the jobs that need to be done?

"The old way was going to the market and finding someone new with the skills that you needed," Schilling said. "But that can be expensive and unpredictable." And competing companies are often chasing after the same, few bodies. "In part driven by COVID, there is an increasing recognition that talent can be grown internally."

But only if the training commitment is there.

"There is too often a mismatch between what employees know how to do and what their employers need to do," Schilling said.

A recent study from the Economic Policy Institute (link)found that in some industries like construction, there are two unemployed people for every open job. In other fields, like finance and healthcare, there are fewer than one. So, in those areas at least, the solution may not be another listing on Monster.com. Maybe the same old team can learn some new tricks.

"Let's make sure that people have the skills they need to get those jobs or keep those jobs in finance or healthcare or business services that pay more," Schilling said. "That is a global problem, which goes directly to many of the economic and social justice issues that people talk about in the world."

These pressures existed long before COVID, as technological changes redefined almost everyone's job. "What COVID has done," he said, "is make human resources officers and heads of learning and development realize that they actually need to do something about it, and that all this is possible at less cost because now we're comfortable doing things online, including learning brand-new skills."

The curriculum needs to be something more than handing out electronic library cards and telling employees, "Go learn." At Emeritus, the courses have start and stop dates and written assignments and oral presentations and human beings answering questions and giving feedback. But that can all be done from anywhere. Just ask any distance-learning second-grader who's lived through this past year.

So now, employees in New York, Phoenix or Mumbai can attend a software boot camp through MIT or a machine learning program through Carnegie Mellon or a digital marketing course through Kellogg. And they're all a lot cheaper than an on-campus residency in Cambridge, Pittsburgh or Evanston.

"Now we can take a marketer from a large grocery chain who may have traditionally thought about what coupons show up in the Sunday paper and teach that person how the new world of digital marketing works," Schilling said. "Or teach a mortgage application processor, who is highly numerate, how to analyze data in Python and turn her into a data analyst elsewhere within that bank. The employee can stay employed and make more money, and it's better for the company, too. They have manufactured the talent instead of buying it on the open market at greater cost."

The goal isn't to replace in-person learning. In fact, Emeritus is working with its university partners to tailor in-person courses to the corporate world. But if the post-COVID future is hybrid everything, he said, "we think there's a huge place for both."

Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.

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05-15-21 0803ET

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