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Upskilling trends in Corporate America: an interview with Jaime Fall, director of UpSkill America

Jamie Fall, director of UpSkill America

ETU is a proud supporter of UpSkill America, a national movement to build a skilled workforce and expand economic opportunity for America’s workers. ETU helps to underwrite UpSkill America’s ongoing efforts to assist and educate companies with their upskilling efforts.

We recently caught up with Jaime Fall, director of UpSkill America. We discussed the key upskilling trends he is seeing in his work with America’s largest companies on their training and education strategies.

Q: At the end of January 2020, UpSkill America celebrated its 5-year anniversary. Shortly after that, everything changed with COVID-19. Since that time, what have you been focused on this year and how has your work changed?

A: January 2020 really does seem like forever ago. But, yes, back in January we brought together several hundred people to celebrate five years of UpSkill America. We spent the time looking back at how far the upskilling movement has come and how far we have yet to go. Little did we know how much the world was going to change just a short time later.

Not only did COVID hit, but our nation also underwent a difficult reckoning on racial injustice and inequity brought about by the murder of George Floyd and other Black men and women. These two pandemics - as they have been called - and the economic impact of the shutdowns that followed raised many questions about how employers were going to respond to these events. We soon knew that we couldn’t plan a path forward without more information directly from employers.

With the support of the Strada Education Network and Walmart.org, my colleagues on our research team and I began working on a 12-month, 3-phase study, to learn how the pandemic and heightened attention to racial inequities have influenced company employment plans for the months and years ahead. We are especially interested in learning how the current context may influence employers’ education and training programs. We are currently wrapping up phase one of the study where we have spoken directly to employers to ask them questions such as:

  • In today’s rapidly changing business environment and economy, what are the workforce skill needs that are increasingly important?
  • In what ways are these skill needs affecting a range of employment practices, including education and training programs for frontline workers?
  • How has the current context - the pandemic and heightened attention on racial inequities - influenced businesses’ workplace hiring practices as well as plans to support career advancement for frontline workers?
  • What types of employee concerns (both personal and professional) have surfaced during these challenging times? What are the ways that businesses are helping to support employees’ needs?

From these interviews, we’re developing a survey which will go out to a broad network of employers in January to give us real data around these topics.


Q: How has COVID changed how businesses are providing training for their employees, both the types of training and the way the training is delivered?

A: One of the more fascinating takeaways from our interviews with employers is how critical training is right now. In past economic downturns you often heard that companies were slashing their training budgets. That doesn’t seem to be the case for the most part as the significant changes brought on by the pandemic have forced many companies to make a series of rapid pivots to keep operating. Some of the types of training employers have rolled out include:

  • Training to do the same job with new procedures (i.e. restaurant cleaning and food delivery, cleaning procedures at health clinics and hospitals, new workflows for manufacturers)
  • Training to do the same job remotely (i.e. remote management and remote sales)
    Training to do a different job at the same or different location (i.e. hospital office staff now taking temperatures)
  • Cross-training to do multiple jobs at the same location (i.e. hotels and restaurants)
    Training and education to do a different job at a different company (i.e. outskilling of workers no longer needed)

None of the larger companies we interviewed have discontinued or paused their in-house education and training programs.

Q: How are employer skill needs changing as a result of the pandemic?

A: The employers we’ve spoken with said the frontline worker skills that are rising in importance during this time include several foundational workplace skills such as adaptability, resilience, and problem-solving. They also said it is important for employees to have a growth mindset.

One interviewee noted, “Adaptability is probably the most important workforce skill. I’m not sure that’s something you can teach--it’s something that you have to support that comes from deep inside. A company can provide the infrastructure, safety, and resources for someone that wants to be adaptable. Adaptability is connected to our own fears, our insecurities, our failures, our identity. Anytime that something is connecting to identity, shame can take hold and paralyze someone’s career. You have to be able to encourage it and support it. The leaders that are good at it are the ones that create emotional safety.”

Some of the factors influencing these needs are:

  • New and evolving protocols for business operations (e.g., cleanliness standards, social distancing, PPE requirements)
  • Interactions with customers in a highly stressful environment, and
  • Operations with a leaner team, which requires employees to juggle multiple responsibilities.

People also spoke of the importance of some management skills that have risen in importance during this time. These management skills included leadership, supportive managing and inclusivity.

Q: At ETU, we're currently hyper-focused on upskilling and training around diversity, equity, and inclusion, because we've just launched two new simulations on the topic. What have employers been telling you about their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts?

A: Those we’ve spoken with have noted that there’s been a heightened urgency to this work as companies realize their previous diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) actions weren’t enough. There is a sense of humility around doing this work, and acknowledgement that there is a long way to go.

The racial and economic disparities that have been put under the spotlight this year have spurred companies to look more carefully at what they are doing and commit to doing better and doing more. Some interviewees noted that it made them realize their DEI practices were falling short. Most interviewees noted that the current moment has accelerated existing DEI work; moreover, it has underscored the importance of creating career pathways and supporting employee advancement in equitable ways.

The companies we have spoken with talked about how they’ve advanced DEI practices in a number of areas, including leadership development, where companies have recognized that diversifying the workforce is not sufficient; for example, it’s necessary to create and support an inclusive environment. Companies also talked about how they are working to diversify their talent pipelines: specifically, working with new education partners like HBCU’s; and creating internships and apprenticeships to support more diverse employees. Some companies also spoke of how they are using their own internal company data to better understand barriers keeping people of color from being hired and advancing.

Finally, several companies spoke of how they need to improve skills related to DEI at the manager level. Improving DEI skills is proposed to help managers do a better job of fostering inclusion within their team. This requires empathic management skills such as listening, being intentional about fostering relationships and connections, and building trust.

Q: What does 2021 have in store for UpSkill America?

A: The pandemic of 2020 has created a bifurcation of the workforce like we’ve never seen before. There are workers who are workplace-independent and can work from home, and there are workers who are workplace-dependent and must go into a place of work to serve patients or customers. As we look to 2021, what drives us is wanting to know that the sacrifices of frontline and entry-level workers - often called essential workers – aren’t forgotten once a vaccine is available and life gets back to “normal.” We’re going to be doubling our efforts next year to ensure that more employers are investing in the education and training of essential workers so they have the skills to grow in their careers as more technology, automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning is rolled out in the workplace.

One of the areas where we think this investment is most needed is in the development of digital skills. Across sectors, there will be some element of remote work for the foreseeable future, especially for office staff that isn't workplace dependent. There is a need for reliable, high-speed internet and the tools to access it. But beyond that, people need a strong digital skillset, including mastering new technology platforms for communication and collaboration. That is why we are joining with Digital US to create a Digital Skills Employer Network.

Our goals for the Digital Skills Employer Network are to cultivate an employer, peer-to-peer community of practice to understand employers’ attitudes toward and actions in support of digital skills. This includes 1) how they define digital skills and identify the ones most in demand, 2) how they invest in building digital skills in their communities and in their workforce, 3) which existing resources they use to develop and assess digital skills, and 4) where gaps in high quality resources may exist. It is our hope that we can educate and inspire more employers to invest in digital skills; identify gaps in capacity and work to fill them through development of shared resources and tool kits; and promote employer and public policies that support inclusive pathways to digital resilience, digital skills, and career advancement.

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