Reskilling in the age of COVID: There’s no better time than the present

Even before the current crisis, changing technologies and ways of working were disrupting jobs and the skills employees need to do them. In 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that as many as 375 million workers would have to switch occupations or acquire new skills by 2030 because of automation and artificial intelligence. In a recent McKinsey Global Survey, 87% of executives said they were experiencing skill gaps—but less than half of respondents had a clear sense of how to address the problem.

In this blog post, we offer six steps leaders can take to ensure that their employees are equipped with the skills critical to their recovery business models.

  1. Rapidly identify the skills your recovery business model depends on. Specify the exact contributions of employee groups and reimagine how their day-to-day work will change as a result of value shifts. Identify which shifts in activities, behavior, and skills are needed. Specify the quantity and type of people you need. For example, if you are moving from in-store sales to predominately home deliveries, your tech team and logistics coordinators will have a greater impact on the new strategy than they did on the old one. They may also need a different skill set to facilitate the increase in demand and customer expectations.
  2. Build employee skills critical to your new business model. Start upskilling the critical workforce pools that will drive a disproportionate amount of value in your adjusted business model. The first step is to build a no-regrets skill set—a tool kit that will be useful no matter how an employee’s specific role may evolve. Focus your investments on four kinds of skills: digital, higher cognitive, social and emotional, and adaptability and resilience. The skill building in these four areas should be predominately digital and self-paced but not tailored to the individual in most cases.
  3. Launch tailored learning journeys to close critical skill gaps. As companies prepare to reimagine and ramp up their business models, it is important to go deeper on strategic workforce planning. When an international bank realized that its regular face-to-face sales model faced disruption, it concluded that virtual selling could become a competitive advantage if done well. The bank then began a tailored upskilling journey for its sales reps to deepen their core sales skills while improving their virtual ways of working.
  4. Start now, test rapidly, and iterate. Organizations shouldn’t launch reskilling initiatives and then disband them after the crisis passes; whatever talent reskilling or redeployment you do now should also be used to expand your reskilling capabilities going forward. By building your own institutional learning, and capturing what works and what doesn’t now, you put yourself in a position to apply those lessons during disruptive events in the future.
  5. Act like a small company to have big impact. Smaller companies are often more successful at following agile principles—making bold moves more quickly because they don’t have to shift around large groups of people to try something new. They also may be more willing to fail, because they have fewer layers of approval to go through—and tend to have a clearer view of their skill deficiencies, so they’re better at prioritizing the gaps they need to address and at selecting the right candidates for reskilling.
  6. Protect learning budgets (or regret it later). Use your training budget to make skill building a key strategic lever for adapting to the next normal. Don’t waste 2-3 years and forego the efficiency and resilience you could develop now. What you can and should do is focus on the resilience of your learning ecosystem: Make it both more digital and more accessible to employees. Finally, leverage the ready-made learning journeys and objects of external partners.

Companies can’t be resilient if their workforces aren’t. Building your reskilling muscle now is the first step to ensuring that your organization’s recovery business model is a success.

For more on this topic, please read “To emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis, companies should start reskilling their workforces now.”


Career Exchange is a COVID-19 response initiative offered at no cost to companies hiring, furloughing, or laying off individuals. It is a digital talent marketplace that aims to address the mismatch of labor supply and demand, helping organizations and individuals. McKinsey & Company supports the platform as part of our commitment to safeguarding livelihoods. Learn more or visit the Career Exchange website to sign up.

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