• The COVID-19 pandemic has widened the skills gap.

• Employers must invest in retraining and broaden candidate pools.

• Workers must use online resources to expand their networks and skills bases.

For many centuries, Laufenburg thrived as one whole city on the banks of the Rhine. Until the year 1801, when Napoleon ordered the river become the new border, dividing the town in two. Since then, the Rhine has separated the Swiss and German Laufenburgs. Eventually, in 2004, a new bridge was planned to better connect both sides. A straightforward solution? Sadly not: A misunderstanding resulted in a height disparity of 54cm. Sadly, the two Laufenburgs’ efforts to reunite were left hanging in mid-air.

This sorry tale of misalignment is strangely reminiscent of the struggle to close the skills gap. For many centuries, employees prepared for what the labour market demanded, learning one profession, valid for their whole life. Until the last few years. Now the COVID pandemic has accelerated digitalization and widened the gap between people's skills and labour market needs. Like Laufenberg, the solution for the current mismatch is not straightforward. Employees and employers separately attempting to close the gap could also result in a tragically misaligned bridge.

A bridge requires both sides to each be as determined as the other to collaborate. It is time to close the skills gap by aligning two different approaches: top-down and bottom-up.

The top-down approach applies to the strategy of corporations addressing the skills gap. According to the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs 2020 Report, 94% of business leaders report they expect employees to pick up new skills on the job, a sharp uptake from 65% in 2018.

Is there a way organizations can foster those critical skills more effectively? The Vodafone Future Ready Report interviewed 1,813 businesses in November 2019 to discover what type of firm is best prepared for the future, and what they are doing differently to stand out from the rest. As it turned out, we were all about to face the most significant global business challenge of the century so far: the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2020, those conclusions were put to the test: Were those future-ready businesses better prepared for extraordinary circumstances?

The report concluded that those better prepared for the future embraced several measures to combat skill shortages in our current climate more successfully by:

• Investing in the retraining of existing employees, as the first measure in the implementation of preparing their workforce for the future

• Attracting new talent by targeting different and diverse candidate pools, including age, international background and neurodiversity. Cognitive diversity is essential for the digital age.

• Bridging the skills gap by exploring new alternative solutions, for example, outsourcing more functions and roles to third parties or using automation and artificial intelligence (AI) to remove or reduce staff requirements

The following graphic shows the difference in approach between “future-ready” business and all businesses:

How can businesses cultivate a digitalized workforce?
Image: Vodafone

How can the top-down approach facilitate the alignment with the potential hirings? Helping society progress is becoming ever more critical to profitable success. There are currently great efforts taking place. For example, Amazon Web Services offers free digital training on Cloud, an area with a clear growing talent need. Corporations also support professional networks and promote diversity in digital areas, as Women in Big Data shows, sponsored by IT and tech firms to attract talent to the emerging big data professions. Similar corporate-led initiatives should be encouraged to guide individuals on their reskilling journey.

The bottom-up approach centres around individuals taking their future into their own hands by addressing their own skills gap, starting with a reinvention journey which prepares them for future opportunities. The Future of Jobs 2020 Report estimates by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced due to a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines, while 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new technologically driven work landscape.

Is there a way to prepare ourselves for that wealth of opportunities more effectively? The digital world also opens new ways of helping us, summarized in these five crucial steps:

• Getting inspired and discovering new trends has never been easier. The internet offers us insights and consultancy reports about how our area of interest can develop. A person with a background in marketing should find the trends of using big data in that area. The owner of a little coffee shop can be exposed to new ideas to offer unique experiences.

• Setting the right direction. Each person needs to reflect on their unique background and strengths to find emerging opportunities. Finding a plan and prioritizing the skills for the new target job, be it digital finance or finding new interactive selling channels for your product.

• Learning efficiently is more accessible than ever. There is a vast offering of online learning available. Platforms as Coursera or Udacity have seen exponential growth, while offering opportunities to educate the most vulnerable populations.

• The digital world opens opportunities to create and develop a network of people with the same interests. Virtual events, easy to find in platforms as meetup or Eventbrite help us finding a tribe with similar goals to exchange ideas and inspiration.

• Sharing your newly acquired knowledge through social media channels as LinkedIn is a way to validate your expertise with the market demands, get challenged, attract opportunities and help others grow.

How can this bottom-up approach align with the labour market needs? Online resources provide the possibility to be up to date with trends, and join networks and virtual events. Overall, individuals should leverage those insights, and step up and focus on how to acquire the right skills to solve new business problems.

A gap is bridged thanks to aligning efforts from both sides. The Hochrheinbrücke bridge now links the Swiss and German Laufenburg cities – thanks to the misalignment being noticed at an early stage. Will we be able to finally bridge the skills gap too?