These are extraordinary times. For businesses across the country, large and small, what we’ve been able to take for granted has been turned on its head in the space of 4 short weeks.

The first priority, sadly, for many is survival. This will mean cutting costs, and working with customers and clients to manage disruption. The focus is, inevitably, short term.

But when the recovery comes – hopefully soon – it will also be these same businesses that lead the charge towards growth. And at the heart of that recovery must be the people who work in those businesses.

We need to support our staff. We need to make businesses match-fit to lead the recovery. And we need to address some of the longstanding issues in the UK economy. Fortunately, in this dark time, there is one thing we can do that addresses all three – mounting a truly ambitious national effort to train and to learn

At a time when we seem to be ripping up the rule book in so many areas, here’s an idea.  Every worker who can – whether working at home, on furlough, or who has sadly lost their job – should have an opportunity to learn something valuable during this period. Whether you’re 16 or 65, highly qualified or not, everyone can benefit from acquiring a new skill to use in the workplace.

For some, that could be getting ahead of the curve in project management, forecasting, or data analysis, for others it might be achieving a level of proficiency in Excel, for some, it might be to start that professional qualification you’ve never had time for. And where people are already enrolled in training, like apprenticeships, why not accelerate the parts you can, right now. 

There are several benefits to such a plan.

Firstly, it replenishes the vital role of work in our lives. Work is the place where many of us gain not just skills, but a sense of identity. It’s important as much for well being as it is for wealth. 

Secondly, it capitalises on our newfound reality that we have the technology to make online learning work well, and at scale. Whether it’s video conferencing, or greater use of online project management, we’re all using technology more, and realising it can revolutionise the delivery not just of work but of learning too. 

Third, it keeps workers match-fit for recovery. Just like footballers training until the season resumes, we need to keep workers focussed and ready. If you’ve been furloughed and you’re left with time but concern, what better way for employers to signal your importance to the future and for you to take control of it. 

And finally, it addresses what economists, policymakers and businesses have long been struggling with: how to upskill and reskill a workforce for new times. Even before Coronavirus came to limit our freedom, skills, or rather the lack of them, was a big issue. Research published recently by the Industrial Strategy Council suggests that by 2030 nearly 90% of the working population may lack the digital skills needed. That’s a shocking prediction. It has to change. 

Covid-19 has brought great pain to our society and economy. There’s a risk that during this difficult time, we close in on ourselves, divide and fracture. 

Alternatively, there’s an opportunity that’s perhaps greater than ever for businesses to demonstrate just how integral and important we are to a good society. If businesses are to lead the recovery successfully, their people will need to feel it.

We’d never have had the courage to stop for long enough to make such an ambitious commitment to train. That chance has been thrust upon us. If business and government get behind this we could use it well.  

Sir Charlie Mayfield is chairman of Be the Business and QA Limited. 

Published in The Times, 2 April 2020.

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