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During the pandemic, the number of long-term unemployed people — those out of work for at least 27 weeks — has skyrocketed from about 1 million to 4 million. While there are hopes that the vaccine rollout will help businesses rebound, another challenge lies on the horizon: getting workers back up to speed. As economist Lisa Cook of Michigan State University explained to NPR, “Skills atrophy.” Long-term unemployment throughout the pandemic could mean a surge of workers facing skill deficits.
It’s a concern Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell brought up nearly a year ago, before anyone knew how long the pandemic would last. In an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes, he cautioned that “longer and deeper recessions tend to leave behind damage to people’s careers.”
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It’s difficult to predict how big a problem this will be. Researchers have tried to quantify the pace at which work skills atrophy, but there are so many variables — the types of skills involved, the type of job someone has, the length of their time of unemployment, and much more — that there’s no hard-and-fast rule. One owner of a chain of auto body shops in Pennsylvania told USA Today in December that he was confident that technicians’ skills won’t have atrophied in six to nine months of unemployment. Some technical skills may be like the proverbial ability to ride a bike — the kind that comes back to you quickly once you start again.
But these days, so-called soft skills, which I call power skills, are more important in most jobs. Technologies like AI and machine learning are leading to the automation of more and more technical tasks, making uniquely human skills like empathy, communication, listening, collaborating, and providing helpful feedback even more critical for workers. They are also the types of skills that may have taken a hit during the pandemic. Psychologists and neuroscientists have concluded that we “are subtly but inexorably losing our facility and agility in social situations — whether we are aware of it or not.”
Organizations need to help workers rebuild lost skills before expecting them to deliver at previous levels. Having spent years as chief learning officer at LinkedIn, and through my current work at Degreed, I’ve found systems that work to help people recover, refresh, and update their skills when returning from an extended period out of work. Here are steps leaders can take.
Make learning tools accessible and easy to use. Some companies made online learning platforms available to unemployed people during the pandemic. Microsoft, for example, launched an initiative to help 25 million people worldwide acquire digital skills. While such initiatives are helpful, individual businesses need to make sure that their returning employees, as well as new hires, have specific skills that may not be covered by free, externally available platforms. Companies benefit from offering their own learning tools.
It’s also important to make sure the tools or platforms you offer are simple to use. And since not everyone has access to high-speed internet, or enough bandwidth to work while their children are also attending school remotely, it’s good to create a space where people can use learning tools onsite, when possible. As a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development pointed out, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed key limitations in online learning, including “the prerequisite of adequate digital skills, computer equipment, and internet access to undertake training online.”
Online learning can help people brush up on technical skills and also build power skills by connecting users with fellow learners and suggesting assignments that require practice with real people.
Establish reintroduction periods. Once they bring back employees who were furloughed or laid off, businesses have a range of onboarding (or “reboarding”) tasks to address. Make learning time one of them.
Often, when businesses let employees go, they offer them time and resources to try to find another job. Think of this as the reverse of that. Make sure returning employees have paid time not only for online learning but also for coaching from colleagues inside the company. This is especially important when operations have changed. Returning employees need someone to show them what’s different and support them in navigating changes that require new skill sets.
In some cases, organizations can get double the benefit by giving returning employees time to teach new hires. In teaching a skill, employees recall and reinforce their own expertise.
Create cohort-based project work. Studies show that workers learn a lot from their peers, especially when it comes to power skills. Soon after they return, assign cross-functional projects that bring together employees from different parts of the company. Have them work together, providing one another with helpful feedback along the way. These kinds of projects also benefit new hires, helping them get to know more people and learn more about how the organization operates.
This group work can be done virtually as well as in person. As long as it includes time spent in conversation — not just messaging — it’s a chance to rebuild collaborative power skills while putting technical skills to use for a mutual goal.
Of course, reestablishing preexisting expertise is only part of the equation in filling skill gaps. The pandemic has shown that some people don’t have important skills, especially the power skills needed to communicate effectively and deal empathetically with colleagues during such a stressful time. As businesses start to move past the worst difficulties of the pandemic, allow this time to serve as a new beginning — one in which developing the most needed skills plays a bigger role than ever.