How COVID-19 has transformed jobs and the skills they require

How do you sell a house when you can't take the prospective buyer around? How do you use technology to carry out people-centric roles? What will a post-COVID world demand of employees?

Rini Simon Khanna, whose presence and voice are part of most events of substance in the national capital, recently moderated the  United Nations Global Compact’s “Regional Perspectives on Leadership for a Global Crisis: Asia Pacific”. The same evening, she also moderated the launch of the Global Nutrition Report 2020. With one major difference from the past: the well-known former television anchor moderated both these events online.

“Most events are already happening online,” said Rini. “Now, all work will be segregated into that which needs F2F (face to face) attendance or physical presence, and that which can be done through online platforms.

These events as they are held today point to one critical skill that people are going to need in a post-COVID job market — designing digital events. In a survey of more than 1500 people — 68% of them event planners and 32% suppliers — conducted by the Chicago-based Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), digital event design emerged as the top skill that 8 out of 10 planners wanted from applicants.

A close second, mentioned by 75 per cent of the planners, was the skill to design live experiences in post-COVID19 physical environments with more stringent hygiene standards. Then came other skills – developing sales and marketing approaches best suited to a post COVID market, business continuity and scenario planning, ability to organise digital, virtual and hybrid events and monetisation of events. The oft mentioned soft skills — especially cultivating resilience — too were defined anew.

The lockdown may be gradually lifted, but almost every job in the post lockdown era will need one additional skill set – to do some part of the work digitally, virtually or online—call it any of these. The smart phone that most Indians even in the rural back of the beyond can use to send a WhatsApp message in Roman Hindi, will now have to be used, even if in a small measure, for the job that is going to bring home the roti.

Possibly, many future jobs will also require a second new skill—to work from home, stay disciplined, remain productive – and all this without a colleague a few feet away, an office canteen or cafeteria, or even a boss who could keep you galloping in the right direction. Home will be the new work place, and family something you have to navigate around.

Even for the lowest level of workers,, one of the early job hunt portals, now lists five “top skills” that recruiters in the post-COVID times will look for: digital marketing, search engine optimization (SEO), project management, data analysis and software architecture and design.

What never goes out of fashion: EQ

Other skills a person requires are necessary, yet peripheral to digitization, machine learning and artificial intelligence. “New skills for a distance economy” is what McKinsey calls it in a paper that dwelt on skills that companies are likely to expect as they emerge from the COVID crisis. “To meet the challenge of remote working, companies should craft a talent strategy that develops employees’ critical digital and cognitive capabilities, their social and emotional skills, and their adaptability and resilience,” the paper added.

And so, the new dynamic is about more than remote working, or the role of automation and AI. It’s all about how  people are reskilled and upskilled to deliver new business models in the post-pandemic era.

“Labour will have to understand ideas like social distancing and hand hygiene while their supervisors will be expected to have people skills – getting them to do all this without making them feel insecure,” said an engineer with Rahejas, now working in rebuilding the capital’s iconic Kathputhli colony.

“At the sales and marketing level, work will be very different from the past,” added the engineer. “Customers, who will now possibly work from home, have to be virtually taken through homes we are building. So a new set of skills will be required, but these are not what you need to attend a B-school for. Basically, it is about converting some good habits into skills.”

So what would that imply, really? To enable a possible buyer to visualise what the digital tour of a few apartments will translate into on the ground, and charm him into making up his mind without actually seeing and verifying for himself every aspect of a home, one needs “solid soft skills,” he explained. “Buying a house is not the same as buying fashion wear on Amazon. Very special skills are required to sell these without site visits,” the engineer said, implying personal charm, patience, and conviction will count the more now.

Like the coronavirus, jobs too seem to be mutating and morphing. It may not be a “job” as your seniors have always known and aspired for, but a project, a short term contract, a freelance assignment, or a position associated with the gig economy.

Sanjiv Mehta, Chairman and Managing Director of Hindustan Lever says routine and mono-skilled roles will be replaced with specialists, insights-driven and multidisciplinary roles. “Skills like creativity, empathy, collaboration will gain even more prominence as will the requirement for hardcore data scientists, design and systems and thinking talent,” he says in an interview with entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala.

Mehta gives the example of the conventional job of an HUL salesperson. That will remain, but he will be supported by technology which will enable him to customize assortment for each of the millions of stores in the country.

At the same time, the timeless skills of building nurturing relationships with customers, creativity at the point of purchase will also be required. Not only are jobs being transformed, but so is the way the work is done. More interdependent, more collaborative, more agile and more flexible.”

Home will be the new work place, and family something you have to navigate around. Representational Image by Junjira Konsang from Pixabay

Shall we see new jobs anytime soon?

There is sharp concern over the delay in the Class of 2020 (including those in IITs and other premier institutions) getting letters of appointment or deferrals in the date when they were to join the jobs they had secured on campus.

For those who are yet to find placement, there is a question mark over the nature of jobs that they will get, for like the coronavirus, jobs too seem to be mutating and morphing. It may not be a “job” as their seniors have always known and aspired for, but a project, a short term contract, a freelance assignment, or a position associated with the gig economy.

Youngsters entering the job market today need to realise that jobs of the older generation have indeed disappeared by the tens of thousands, in many fields. A survey by PHDCCI (PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry — with PHD standing for Progress, Harmony, Development), released on May 13th, done specifically to assess the impact of the COVID pandemic on Indian businesses, showed that 50% of the 2480 respondents said reducing workforce was a key element in their post lockdown business plans.

“Right now we are not thinking about hiring, the priority is paying full salaries to those who are already working with us,” said one survey respondent. These were not all small and micro enterprises – 35% of them were medium scale and 19% of them, large enterprises.

There are, however, also enough indications that as they reboot for post lockdown, some businesses will hire. This will be done with an increased focus on enhancing competitiveness in the domestic and international market, focusing on innovation, research and development, and diversification. Each of these requires new skills that new job seekers will have to discover and learn.  

In an authored piece on hiring freeze and delayed onboarding by Indian companies, based on a survey on the COVID impact on talent acquisition, Tarandeep Singh, of Aon Assessment Solutions wrote that even resilient organisations with agile processes are staying the course with their business strategies.

“We are seeing industries like information technology, e-commerce and logistics staying neutral to positive about hiring and growth. A key reason for this is their investment and efforts in building and adopting virtual business processes and technologies,” he said.

McKinsey had, in a report titled “Digital India: Technology to Transform a Connected Nation,” said that the digital economy could create 60 million to 65 million jobs by 2025. That was in March 2019. Now with COVID ravaging the country and leaving the entire population dependent totally on technology, for everything from food to cash to connectivity to healthcare, it is clear that every job will get that much more digitalized.

In the final analysis, therefore, it will not just be about certificates and degrees in subjects around information technology and software. A lot that falls in the zone between tech skills and soft skills is what future jobs will demand from candidates.

Managing a team of members scattered in diverse locations, for example, will not be the same as managing a group within the confines of an office. Some of the medium- sized units are expecting to have in-house training for their staff on the relevant technologies that will be part of work when they reopen.

As NITI Aayog CEO, Amitabh Kant says, the concern is not whether there will be hiring by companies, but rather, “How do we skill our people for the new kinds of jobs for which they will hire? We are heading into a totally new world.”

Also read:

How to prepare for the new future of jobs in a post-COVID world

What lies ahead for the six million working in urban retail stores?

COVID-19 impact: Final year students across colleges stare at bleak job prospects

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