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Matt Guttu

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Which skills are learners honing during lockdown?

Some workers are spending their time during lockdown developing themselves. But which skills are they focusing on?

Some employees, particularly those furloughed, currently have more time on their hands to focus on their personal development. But which skills are learners seeking to improve in such turbulent times? 

The business landscape has been transformed. With many workers currently working from home or furloughed, there is more time to invest in upskilling and learning.

But what kind of topics are employees engaging with? According to Degreed data, assessing millions of global users and hundreds of customers across all industries, we’re seeing a transition from ‘hard’ technical skills being developed towards broader, more transferable skills. Right now, amidst all the uncertainty, workers are focusing on skills that will be valuable in multiple roles.

Our data team analysed a 4-month period at the start of this year, taking the average search volume in December 2019 and January 2020, and comparing this to the volume in February and March 2020. This captured data on workers during the transition from office-to-home based work as a stay-at-home order was issued across most of Europe and some of the US. 

An increase in remote working skills searches?

What we largely expected was to see a significant increase in searches relating to working remotely and specific tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Webex. However our findings were a bit more surprising.

When overall search volume was compared across the quarter, there were some topics that suddenly increased in February and March, while related searches for other skills sharply decreased (search volume, for this purpose, was defined as the percentage of active users searching for a term).

At the current time, employees are valuing skills with a longer shelf life.

Flexible skills rise, tech skills fall

Using this approach, we discovered an increase in searches for Excel, leadership and communication (up 4%, 5%, and 15% respectively) and sharper decreases in searches for Python, Java (both down 20%) and Machine Learning (down 36%).

To give further context, the number of searches for Excel-related skills are 10 times greater in volume than searches for remote working. Likewise, searches related to communication skills are five times higher. 

Opting for a longer shelf life

What can learning professionals take away from this data? Firstly, at the current time, employees are valuing skills with a longer shelf life. Knowledge that can serve them in several roles, that are highly transferable and, therefore, can help an employee (and their company) manage change. These ‘flexible’ skills can mitigate the risk of job loss, enabling an employee to step into a new role or work on a different project.

Skills such as leadership, change management (up by 14%) and communication, can be applied in a number of situations, across industries and geographies.

Flexible skills are incredibly important to cultivate in your workforce. Change is the only constant.

Given that some industries, such as travel and hospitality, have been transformed by current events, arming your workforce with the right skills is a competitive differentiator. Businesses that invest in upskilling will build greater agility and responsiveness to sudden market changes.

If, for instance, you suddenly have to build a new product, then skills in communication, leadership and design thinking (also increased by 14%) will be invaluable. If, as is the case now, your workplace suddenly needs to change the way it completes work, then change management will be essential. 

Prioritising transferable skills

The decrease in searches for highly technical skills like Java, Python and Machine Learning doesn’t automatically mean that these skills are less important now compared to before.

However, it is clear that, during this time of extreme change and volatility, people are not prioritising innovative technical skills. These skills lend well to long-term career development and aspirational learning and will therefore likely be picked-up again by employees once current challenges have passed. But, for the time being, learners are focusing on the skills that will help them navigate the changing business landscape.

Provide tailored learning

For learning professionals, today’s focus should be on serving workers with tailored learning content for developing transferable skills. Focusing on learning and upskilling will focus workers on the future – empowering them to manage their careers during this turbulent time. 

Reacting to change

Of course, time will tell how long the current search trends will last. What we are seeing now is a reaction to the current climate. It will be many months before the world completely returns to business as usual and, even then, the workplace is not going to be the same again. Organisations, and their workers, need to prepare for this.

This makes flexible skills incredibly important to cultivate in your workforce. Change is the only constant. To effectively prepare, your learning strategy needs a flexible overhaul. Offering more content and guidance around building flexible skills will be an effective future-proofing strategy as businesses move forward and recover.


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