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Never Stop Learning

14, February,

The terms ‘employee’ and ‘worker’ are vast, layered and ever-evolving. Yesterday’s hobbyists are today’s gainful entrepreneurs. Many meanings of these word groups have changed and been altered since the first kick of industrialization put a group of similarly skilled people together in a room for a collective common purpose, known today as the office team. What also keeps changing is the definition of skill. From being the set of abilities, one may possess to be qualified for a specific task to being something you do for a Tik Tok video, skill is something you get to define yourself. 

However, once employed for a set of useful skills for a given purpose, it is now imperative that you also ‘upskill’ yourself as and when appropriate, required or both. The meaning(s) with which we use this word today comes to us from 1978 when it was first used to describe actions undertaken to increase or improve one’s existing skills for a specific job. Used variedly as a verb and an adjective, ‘upskill’ is one of the most 21st century words you will come across in Business English. 

Say a small company hires a young graduate with a computer science degree and an interest in online advertising to build their corporate and commercial websites. The person who designs the two platforms adheres to the company’s expectations and adds some features that the company’s managers/CEOs had not thought of. The sites are up and running, the work is coming in, and all is as it should be. Except, the team of subordinates under the management is not as savvy with site management as one might have thought. Once the computer science grad had done the groundwork, it was expected that the work would percolate down to everyone on the team, and the sites will be managed or at least maintained by the corporate and the sales teams, respectively. Soon, orders are delayed. There are system errors during presentations with overseas clients. The company even loses a couple of prospective offers because their communications team could not work out the deliverables via the site. A small, productive change translated into a net loss because the one-step missed in all of the upgrades was upskilling the employees. 

The other side of this scenario, the alternative ending, if you will, would have the company introducing the concept of going online for business and sales to the rest of the team while also signposting to them the need for their computer knowledge up-gradation soon after. The sites will be developed, and there would be workshops and trial and error afternoons with the site developer. Questions will be asked, and mistakes will be identified before anything went online. There might even be a couple of internet enthusiasts who volunteer to maintain a few aspects of the venture. Instead of one person handling the upkeep of two massive websites, it would be delegated, shared or co-operated for a better and more collective outcome. This whole process would be labelled as upskilling, and it is something that needs to become the norm for every company that wants to move apace with the times. 

Malaysia and Singapore have already introduced banks that are entirely online with zero physical branches anywhere. Developing countries such as India and Pakistan are still struggling to provide simple banking solutions to their underbanked populations. People with smartphones still do not know how to use functional apps despite being connected to the internet 24x7. On the other hand, physical branches of banks that have taken part in online processing face regular and persistent trouble in connectivity, internet-based tasks, data monitoring and safety, and thus, lag behind. Insisting on constant upskilling of employees at all levels of such organizations can ensure that upgrades occur at every level. 

During the pandemic, educational institutions the world over had to shut their doors and increase (or introduce afresh) the concept of mass online teaching. Had there been computer literacy training for all the teachers regardless of subject/field when schools became computer-equipped, the frenzy of delivering classes over Zoom could have been replaced with controlled e-classroom environments and e-mail friendly lesson plans that could have travelled across continents. 

However, Upskilling should not be limited to becoming internet-savvy and has real-world connotations for all manners of work. Farmers can learn how to upgrade their equipment and bring better yields year on year. Musicians learn to make music digitally instead of cumbersome instrumental orchestra, although there may be a question of preference. Small and big industries learn to automate or digitize their systems to save on resources and workforce. Companies sponsor their employees for higher studies and specialization to bring back that learning to the company. Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale have specialized programs aimed at the middle-management. Those who want to upskill while working full time, a little closer to home, are initiatives like Swayam, where one can take certificate courses with institutes like IIMs at little or no cost. Tech giants like Google and IBM have launched professional certifications, which they proudly commit to the equivalency of a college degree. Professional designations and certificate programs have become the stepping stones to career advancement, skill-building and even career change. 

While the definition of upskilling varies with each field, each sub-stratum of an industry and so on, what does not change is the undeniable need to improve as an employee, a worker and a cog in the universal machine of work. Ongoing development is the surefire way of keeping oneself relevant, and there is nothing better than willful engagement in the advancement of the self and the whole.