Upskilling IT in the COVID era

CIOs are looking to uplevel hard and soft skills alike in the IT ranks

  • 70% of IT leaders plan to continue or increase their upskilling investments to address critical needs over the next 18 months
  • The pandemic has shifted how CIOs will deploy those skills
  • Cybersecurity, AI, and cloud support show the most promise as skills worthy of investment
  • Among the most important digital skills CIOs say they need now: effective communication

Each morning, thousands of Infosys employees go to school with Lex without leaving their homes. Lex isn’t a roommate but the virtual face of the company’s mobile learning platform. More than 22,000 employees, or about 1 in 10 Infosys workers, spend an average of 35 minutes a day earning certifications to expand their IT skill sets.

Lex has been around for two years, offering hundreds of micro-courses in artificial intelligence, data analytics, Agile project management, and more. The number of Infosys employees taking courses has nearly doubled since the COVID-19 crisis began. Workers can either choose their own curricula or have Lex’s AI tailor courses geared toward advancing their career or preparing them for new roles.

Infosys is among dozens of large companies that have made significant investments in digital skills training—AKA “upskilling”—for workers in recent years. But the pandemic has given upskilling a new urgency, especially for IT organizations.

Nearly 70% of IT leaders plan to maintain or increase their upskilling investment over the next six to 18 months, according to a survey earlier this year by tech-training nonprofit NPower. The pandemic has shifted how CIOs deploy those skills to meet the demands of the moment and prepare their workforces for the challenges ahead.

“Having an upskill strategy for your IT and all digital talent ensures your people have the latest skills to compete in a quickly changing digital marketplace,” says Tracey Fritcher, director and principal strategist for employee experience at ServiceNow. “Even if you don’t feel your company is in a ‘digital’ space right now, all organizations will eventually need to have top technology talent to compete in a global marketplace.”

Upskilling’s upsides

Despite COVID-19’s enormous impact on work and business this year, the most highly sought job skills have remained the same. In July 2019, the job website Indeed released its annual roster of the 15 most in-demand tech skills. The coding languages SQL, Java, and Python ranked highest among employers. One year later, in July 2020, the same trio topped the skills list.

That consistency among the most sought-after skills underlines the upskilling urgency the pandemic has created. As companies become more reliant on digital services and tools to keep remote workers productive, they also create more digital infrastructure and data to manage.

“It’s not that the tech skills that are most in demand have changed so much as COVID has accelerated the digital transformation we’ve been seeing in recent years,” says Luke Losinski, Deloitte’s senior manager of technology business management.

Having an upskill strategy for your IT and all digital talent ensures your people have the latest skills to compete in a quickly changing digital marketplace.

Upskilling is a highly cost-effective way to keep pace with that acceleration amid scaled-back hiring. Employers spend on average $4,425 to recruit and hire a new employee, according to the World Economic Forum, whereas the cost of upskilling an existing employee is only about $1,300, according to the Association for Talent Development. In addition, 86% of top-performing companies report that upskilling boosts employee engagement and productivity, according to a 2020 survey by PwC.

Clearly, most companies view upskilling as a strategic investment. “Everybody knows there will be winners and losers as a result of the COVID crisis,” says Mark Settle, a former CIO of Okta. “The companies whose workers can automate and adapt with agility will almost certainly come out ahead over the long run.”

In interviews, several experts said that three major functions of IT organizations offer the biggest benefits of rapid upskilling in the near future: cybersecurity; cloud support; and machine learning/AI.

Cybersecurity

The shift to remote working brought with it increased cybersecurity risks. More than 40% of organizations have reported a rise in cyberattacks since the work-from-home migration began in March, according to a global survey by tech recruiter Harvey Nash and KPMG.

One major reason for that increase is that the logistics of WFH expanded every company’s attack surface. Employees logged into corporate networks through home networks that may connect multiple unsecured devices, from smartphones to digital assistants like Amazon’s Echo to family members’ laptops and game consoles.

“I’ve talked to many CIOs who said, ‘We’ve got very clear policies about connecting to the corporate network,’” says Settle. “That’s great, but before the crisis they were trying to enforce that policy across 10% of their workforce. Now they’ve got to enforce it across 100%.”

That may help explain why 38% of CIOs plan to invest in cybersecurity-based upskilling for their IT staff, nearly twice as many as before the pandemic, according to a survey by security vendor Netwrix.

Cloud support

In the early days of the pandemic, remote work, virtual learning, online and mobile streaming, and e-commerce all drove massive demand for (and data flow to and from) the cloud, as countless people worldwide changed their work patterns virtually overnight.

Keeping data flowing smoothly is essential. “Nobody wants an e-commerce app or streaming site to go down ever,” Settle notes. “The larger you get and the more data you traffic, the more critical cloud skills become to avoid any downtime.”

No wonder that all CIOs in the NPower survey indicated that the need to increase cloud IT support skills is a priority for the post-pandemic world.

Accenture is doing just that with an ambitious upskilling push, launched in the pandemic’s early days, called Cloud Elevate. The program is available to the company’s more than 500,000 employees worldwide, offering virtual training on key cloud platforms, as well as mentor support. Other companies bolstering cloud skills with certification courses include Infosys, Amazon, PwC, and IBM.

Machine learning and AI

One immediate consequence of the abrupt shift to remote working is the amount of new enterprise data it is generating. Companies will create and consume more data over the next three years than they did in the previous 30, according to analyst firm IDC.

To extract value from that galaxy of data and drive digital workflow automation at scale, businesses will need a much larger IT workforce skilled in advanced data analytics and machine learning. According to IPsoft research, 38% of companies with 500 or more employees now plan to upskill employees in AI-related skills.

[Read also: How to close critical skills gaps]

To do that, some companies have partnered with e-learning platforms like Coursera, Udacity, edX, and Educative to offer employees AI-focused courses. Coursera’s most popular course this year, in fact, is AI entrepreneur Andew Ng’s introduction to machine learning, with more than 3.3 million enrollees. A Python programming course drew 1.5 million students.

For CIOs upskilling their workers in AI, one of the biggest competitive advantages they’re seeking is the power of prediction, Settle says. “As uncertainty goes up,” he says, “the importance of predictive analytical capabilities has greatly increased.”

Upskilling non-technical skills

One outlier on Indeed’s 2020 list of most in-demand tech skills—and appearing for the first time—is one of the oldest non-technical skills of all: effective communication. With a dispersed workforce collaborating remotely, mostly through digital channels that don’t effectively convey nuances of language and intent, the ability to communicate clearly and efficiently is more important than ever.

This, too, is part of an ongoing IT skills trend, Losinski says. As low-code/no-code software and cloud services gain more influence in the enterprise, the demand for hard coding skills may diminish as the ability to communicate, collaborate, and respond creatively to change becomes an increasingly prized skill.

“Over the last several years, softer skills have become more important in the world of IT,” says Losinski “Technical expertise and business acumen are always important, but increasingly CIOs are looking for creativity, cognitive flexibility, and emotional intelligence.”

Indeed, in Deloitte’s 2020 Global Technology Leadership Study, the three skills Losinski cited are those that technology leaders will seek most in the years ahead. An additional incentive to invest in so-called soft-skills training: It delivers a 256% return on investment in employee productivity and retention, according to research by Harvard University, Boston College, and the University of Michigan.

It may be one of the biggest lessons that the pandemic has taught IT leaders: Closing the communication gap between remote workers may be just as valuable as closing the skills gap in IT skills.