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SME Guide

Getting Ahead of Change: The Critical Role of Upskilling in Turbulent Times

The world of work is undergoing a massive transformation driven by technological breakthroughs, demographic shifts, globalization, and changing employer-employee dynamics. The COVID-19 pandemic has also necessitated radical workplace changes, like remote work. To stay competitive and employable amidst this turbulence, upskilling is imperative.

Why Upskilling Matters Today More Than Ever

  • Pace of automation: Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and advanced analytics are automating jobs faster than ever before. Upskilling helps people transition into new roles.
  • Dynamic job landscape: Average job tenure has dropped to 4 years. Workers now hold 12–15 jobs over their lifetimes. Upskilling enables easier career pivots.
  • Skills instability: The shelf-life of skills is shrinking. Skills acquired today may become obsolete in just five years. Continuous upskilling is vital to staying relevant.
  • Remote work revolution: Remote work has surged 300% since COVID-19. Virtual collaboration and digital tool skills are now essential for the distributed workforce.
  • Economic volatility: boom and bust cycles are increasing skill instability and workforce churn. Upskilling builds career resilience amidst uncertainty.
  • New consumer demands: Changing demographics, lifestyles, and values shape new consumer expectations. Upskilling helps meet their evolving needs.
  • Business transformation: constant restructuring to optimise costs and processes requires employees to adapt. Upskilling facilitates agility.
  • Learning culture: 87% of employees say learning is important for career growth. Upskilling shows organisational commitment to employee development.

Major Upskilling Opportunities Amidst Disruption

Here are some of the most vital skills to acquire today that can expand your career potential:

  • Digital skills: As industries adopt digital technologies, skills in data analytics, cloud computing, programming, automation, etc. become crucial.
  • Human-machine collaboration: With AI and robotics entering workplaces, skills to effectively interface with these technologies are vital.
  • Customer engagement skills: As consumer values and purchasing habits evolve, skills to understand and connect with them gain importance.
  • Business acumen: Understanding how an entire organisation functions and contributes value is key. Business training builds strategic thinking.
  • Soft skills: empathy, creativity, collaboration, learning agility and emotional intelligence differentiate humans from machines.
  • Specialised technical skills: expertise in emerging fields like genomics, 3D printing, nanotech, robotics, etc. creates niche value.
  • Entrepreneurial thinking—innovating, spotting opportunities, taking risks, and managing ambiguity—becomes essential as employment models change.
  • Multidisciplinary approach: Applying diverse knowledge to solve problems is vital for complex challenges. Building T-shaped skills broadens capabilities.
  • Remote collaboration: leading remote teams and engaging virtually with colleagues and clients are essential skills as remote work grows.
  • Agile mindset: Rapidly adapting, experimenting, and implementing change will dictate success amid turbulence.

Barriers to Upskilling and Possible Solutions

While upskilling is critical, scaling it faces hurdles like:

  • Time poverty: Busy schedules leave little time for learning new skills. Providing micro-learning formats like mobile apps can help.
  • Unclear value: Many employees don’t see tangible career benefits from reskilling. Managers should communicate upside potential.
  • Limited access: Quality upskilling opportunities may be scarce in some regions. Online learning platforms can fill gaps.
  • High cost: Advanced certifications often have prohibitive fees. Employer subsidies and public funding can share costs.
  • Change resistance: Employees may avoid learning new skills due to fear of uncertainty or reluctance to change. Motivational nudges are important.
  • Skills mismatches: Upskilling initiatives may not always align with actual skill demands. Training needs analysis to provide focus.
  • Forgetfulness: New knowledge might be forgotten without application on-the-job. Reinforcement through workplace projects aids retention.
  • Drop-off: Learners may lose steam halfway through prolonged programs. Cohort and mentor support improve motivation.

Implementing successful corporate upskilling initiatives

Forward-looking companies play a key role in upskilling workforces for the future.

  • Training needs analysis: identify current and emerging skills gaps based on business vision, job assessments, and trendspotting.
  • Personalised learning paths: tailor development initiatives to individual aspirations, strengths, and learning styles using psychometric analysis.
  • Multi-format delivery: Blend classroom, online, on-the-job, project-based, and community learning models for maximum impact.
  • Partnerships with experts: Collaborate with online education providers, universities, bootcamps, etc. to augment in-house L&D capabilities.
  • Measurement framework: Assess quantifiable metrics like job performance and retention and qualitative aspects like engagement to guide programme improvement.
  • Funding support: Establish dedicated budgets and allot time off for self-driven learning. Leverage government grants for advanced qualifications.
  • Continuous re-skilling: Schedule periodic upskilling to prevent skill obsolescence amid constant workplace evolution.
  • Change evangelism: position reskilling as integral to wider organisational transformation, not just an ad-hoc training activity.

Government Initiatives to Democratise Upskilling

Public policy plays a key role in enabling mass upskilling and employability. Some noteworthy efforts globally include:

  • SkillsFuture (Singapore): a nationwide movement to develop skills mastery and lifelong learning, funded through subsidies and the credit system.
  • Generation UK (United Kingdom): free, employer-led training for jobseekers to gain competitive skills, up to the undergraduate level.
  • Going Digital (Australia): $1000 voucher funding for citizens to access approved digital literacy courses
  • FutureSkills PRIME (India): An online platform connecting learners to specialised upskilling programmes by leading organisations
  • The National Skills Fund (South Africa) supports skills development projects that address scarce and critical skills.
  • Skill Development Fund (Malaysia): Companies can offset employee training costs through government grants and tax exemptions.

Key Benefits of Upskilling for Stakeholders

Upskilling through active learning delivers multifaceted dividends for employees, employers, and society.

For employees:

  • Improved job prospects and earnings potential
  • Career advancement and future readiness
  • Enhanced job satisfaction and engagement
  • Maintaining relevance amid workplace change
  • Opportunity to pursue interests and specialise

For employers:

  • Optimised human capital and talent competitiveness
  • Higher productivity and innovation
  • Increased workforce agility and alignment with business priorities
  • Attracting top talents who value development
  • Reduced recruitment costs through internal mobility

For society:

  • Employability, lower unemployment
  • Shared prosperity through income growth
  • Readiness for the future economy
  • Higher workforce participation, including women and older workers
  • Productivity gains and economic development


The world of work is experiencing unprecedented change and disruption. To thrive amidst the turbulence, employees must take charge of their learning. Companies must enable continuous upskilling aligned with the emerging business landscape.

With people-centric policies, democratised access to quality learning, and collaborative action by all stakeholders, we can proactively reskill workforces and create a bright future of sustainable livelihoods for all even as jobs and skills transform fundamentally.

The scale and speed of transformation demand urgent, concerted efforts to upskill. The window to act is now.

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