Employment and Jobs

The Importance of Upskilling During Economic Downturns

December 17, 2019  • Carol Morrison (i4cp) & Kevin Martin (i4cp)

This is the second in a series of blogs reflecting on innovations in upskilling in advance of UpSkill America’s fifth anniversary event. To learn more about the event and register, click here.

“The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.”
— Alvin Toffler, Futurist, Business Leader, Author of Future Shock

When the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) first partnered with UpSkill America at the Aspen Institute in 2016, the result was a major research study, Developing America’s Frontline Workers.

That landmark exploration of US businesses’ efforts to build the knowledge and skills of their workforces produced many valuable insights for performance-enhancing development. In particular, the research found that companies with consistently strong records of market performance:

  • Recognize the power of development to drive and sustain employee engagement, innovation, and the kind of discretionary effort on the job that increases productivity and performance.
  • Invest in effective development of their workers and advance upskilled employees into better-paying, higher-skilled jobs.
  • Understand, and routinely track, the positive effects of development on levels of workforce absenteeism and turnover.

Those perennially relevant findings about upskilling employees offer important strategic intel for organizational leaders operating in any business climate. In times of economic downturns, their value becomes even more apparent.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution Magnifies the Need for Upskilling

When the next economic downturn occurs, it will do so in what is called the fourth Industrial Revolution, a time characterized by greater workplace presence of artificial intelligence and work automation.

Research by i4cp found that most organizations are not prepared for the impacts that technology brings. In fact, significant gaps with implications for upskilling were revealed:

  • Organizational capability (to effectively utilize advanced automation technology) gaps span processes, skills, and knowledge—and the gaps are growing. Greater focus is needed to analyze jobs at the task level, assess talent risk, and upskill/reskill employees.
  • Workforce motivation (morale and engagement) gaps make it incumbent on leaders to build trust through accurate, transparent communication; empower employees to automate their own work in exchange for upskilling/reskilling and career advancement; and address ethical issues related to implementing automation and AI.
Other Implications for Upskilling

In far too many organizations in which economic downturns trigger budget cuts, learning and development funding is among the first to go. While it’s easy to understand why reduced revenues necessitate heightened cost-consciousness, halting investment in upskilling is a strategic misstep that deprives organizations of key opportunities they could exploit during a recession.

“Halting investment in upskilling is a strategic misstep that deprives organizations of key opportunities during a recession.”

The i4cp/UpSkill America study cautioned that the importance of a highly engaged workforce “must not be overlooked or underestimated.” That discretionary effort that drives performance and productivity in the workplace is even more vital when expectations of employees to do more, combined with the sudden absence of co-workers (perhaps valued friends), put a damper on morale.

The well-established use of development to drive employee engagement can provide a critical strategic intervention when greater job demands and staff cuts threaten to undermine engagement levels.

For workers who abruptly find themselves expected to take on the duties of downsized colleagues, upskilling is more than an engagement consideration. It is a lifeline that turns an overwhelmed and unprepared employee into one with the knowledge and skills to take on new tasks confidently and capably. Skill-building also empowers workers to take greater abilities with them in the event a next round of layoffs leaves them unemployed.

The organizational benefits of continuing to upskill workers during a downturn are readily apparent. When employees have diverse skills that allow them to adapt to changes in business needs, productivity, performance, and customer service are less likely to suffer ill effects.

Because reduced demand often slows production capacity and work activity during economic slumps, employees have more time to devote to learning new skills. Upskilling is a constructive, forward-looking activity that fills that available time, providing hope to participating workers and enabling employers to prepare for eventual upswings and/or new business directions and requirements.

Finally, companies that continue to offer development in the face of economic decline are taking a conscious step to remain among those most able to communicate a strong employer brand and compete for top talent during times when wages and other benefits are likely to remain stagnant.

When the Economy Is Down, Choose to Look Up

Upskilling is a definitive comment on a company’s belief in and commitment to a better future. Seeing an economic downturn for the opportunities it affords is difficult. But choosing to find those opportunities is a winning strategy for businesses and their workforces.

i4cp and UpSkill America offer these takeaways for business and development leaders:

  • Look ahead. Evaluate your organization’s current state and reaffirm (or rethink) future plans. Define the workforce skills, knowledge, mindset, and other traits needed to realize those future plans.
  • Prepare. Lack of time for training is a top reason companies experience skills deficits. Use the slowdown to upskill—help your workers develop those future abilities your organization will need.
  • Embrace agility. Upskilling should be flexible. Workers may need to add only a skill or two to take on additional duties successfully. Think about the work to be done and how it can be accomplished differently.
  • Emphasize the positive. Lead by example—talk about the opportunities available to your organization and its employees. Underscore the benefits of upskilling, and communicate often about career paths and learning options.

For information and support with your organization’s business performance and upskilling goals, visit i4cp.com and as.pn/upskill.


Helping employees learn and advance offers strategic benefits in any business climate. In times of economic downturns, the value of #upskilling becomes even more apparent.

Are companies prepared for the next downturn? Research by @i4cp shows gaps in both organizational capability and workforce motivation. #Upskilling can play a role in bridging these divides.

Faced with a recession, companies often cut funding to learning and development. But halting investment in #upskilling is a strategic misstep that deprives organizations of key opportunities.

#Upskilling reflects a company’s commitment to a better future. Seeing a downturn as an opportunity for advancement is a winning strategy for businesses and their employees.

Employment and Jobs
Employer Tools to Advance the Upskilling Movement
March 18, 2019 • UpSkill America


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