Talent: Upskill and reskill: The norm of the digital age

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 25, 2021 - January 31, 2021.

"What I see us doing is equipping people with skills necessary to transform their careers...” - Pereira

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No role is going to be left untouched by digitalisation. With the accelerated pace of technological development in recent years, individuals — whether they are students or in the middle of their career paths — may be concerned if their skills will remain relevant in the future.

At the same time, learning platforms or training courses for digital skills are becoming popular, as individuals seek to reskill or upskill themselves while in between jobs or outside their day jobs. 

This begs the question: Could this become the norm in the future, whereby one has to continuously upskill to stay in step with technology development?

“It’s already the norm in this digital age. We always talk about the need for lifelong learning but it’s absolutely essential now. The idea that you can study something in university and that your entire career is going to be in that area is no longer true. Those days are gone,” says Andrew Pereira, CEO of Akademi GA, the exclusive partner of General Assembly (GA) in Malaysia.

“You will need to have a degree, but you will also have to develop new skills, reinvent your career and swap career paths sometimes. As the pace of change accelerates, the shelf life of skill sets is shortening.”

GA is a global learning platform that aims to close the digital skills gap by offering courses in areas such as digital marketing, data science, digital product management, UX (user experience) design and software engineering. Originally founded in the US, GA now has campuses in over 30 locations worldwide. 

The Malaysian campus was opened in 2019. Pereira joined as CEO after spending almost a decade working for management consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

“I think organisations like GA are critical players [in helping people] adapt to [this trend]. A lot of individuals and organisations are beginning to realise the need [to upskill] and are turning to companies like ours to future-proof themselves with necessary and relevant skills,” says Pereira.

It is definitely a growing trend in Malaysia. In the last two years, at least two new learning platforms or training centres for digital skills have been set up in the country.

Their services are needed. A McKinsey report last year highlighted that automation could displace up to 4.5 million workers in Malaysia by 2030. At the same time, at least 1.5 million net new jobs could be created. But these jobs will require more advanced degrees and skills. 

“If you talk about the impact of digitalisation, there are three trends that I observe: emerging roles, evolving roles and declining roles. There are a few roles that are not going to be changed, and if you are in any of these roles, you need to learn something new,” says Pereira.

Some examples he brings up are marketing and product management, two roles that have changed drastically due to digitalisation. Technology has changed how people design, prototype and promote products.

“One of the areas that we see demand for data scientists to grow the fastest is in agriculture. Farms generate huge amounts of data related to crop yields and all the factors that go into growing crops. They need data scientists to crunch the data and understand what is driving crop yields,” says Pereira.

These learning programmes are not meant to replace degrees, he adds. “What I see us doing is equipping people with skills necessary to transform their careers … Every time you come to a crossroads and need new skills to go down a separate path, we are waiting there to help you.”

How to keep up with the pace of change?

Just equipping all graduates of Malaysia’s tertiary education system with digital skills is not enough to meet the demand for digital workers in Malaysia by 2030, observes Pereira. The scale of change is so big that the upskilling of the current workforce is also crucial.

This could be challenging, seeing as people in the workforce may not have the time or be willing to learn new skills. 

“When we started GA in Malaysia, our hypothesis was that, [just] like GA in the rest of the world, we would see a lot of demand from the consumer side,” he says. 

The opposite occurred when the pandemic hit last year. Consumer demand for GA courses fell, but demand from enterprise clients rose. GA partners with enterprise clients to upskill and reskill their teams. 

“I think this speaks to the magnitude of the challenge they face in terms of finding quality tech talent. We are working with a lot of companies now to help them translate their digital transformation priorities into talent needs. For instance, if your business is going to look like this in 10 years, what does your workforce need to look like? Many organisations struggle with this,” says Pereira.

This is also a reflection of higher awareness among companies about the need for digitalisation, which translates into job opportunities for digital workers in Malaysia. 

“Yes, companies are more aware. But, frankly, part of it is just driven by urgency. Organisations that weren’t digitalising fast enough are suddenly playing catch-up,” says Pereira.

Digital workers in Malaysia could also find job opportunities by working remotely for foreign clients. Ultimately, this could potentially prevent talented digital workers from leaving the country to seek greener pastures due to a lack of demand locally.

On a related note, complaints about the disconnect between what is taught in university and the demands of the workforce is not new in Malaysia. This is especially true in the technology sector, where changes are occurring rapidly. 

Pereira believes that students should choose degrees by observing the demands of the workforce in the future instead of just focusing on the prestige of particular degrees or their earnings potential.

Meanwhile, educational institutions must make sure their curriculum is updated. “Many educational organisations in Malaysia take two years to obtain the qualifications to change their curriculum. But technologies can emerge and die in two years,” says Pereira.

Employers must change how they evaluate talent as well, he adds. “They rely on paper qualifications as an indicator of skills but that is not always the best way, especially for skills that are more nascent. Employers need to find new ways to assess the suitability of candidates that do not rely on what degree one has.”

How is GA different?

According to Pereira, GA is unique compared with its peers in several ways. One is that its programmes are designed around skills frameworks established by its international Standards Board.

“Instead of developing a curriculum that is set in stone, we have the Standards Board, formed by leaders in various disciplines and who can judge whether the content is relevant. Our courses are continuously evolving to the needs of the marketplace,” he says.

Second, every instructor in GA is a practitioner in his industry with real-world experience. “Third, you won’t just learn a new skill set. You will also learn new ways to present yourself. It’s not sufficient to just have the skills. You need to be able to talk about it and connect with others,” he adds.

GA students can also utilise its Career Services programme to find job placements. In Malaysia, GA’s hiring partners include many of the large banks, telecommunications companies and start-ups, says Pereira.

“We pride ourselves on the fact that over 91% of our learners around the world actually find a job in the new area they’ve developed their skills in within six months of graduation.”

GA taught almost 700 learners in Malaysia last year, according to Pereira. The courses are currently online due to the pandemic and the cost starts from RM2,000. The most popular programme in Malaysia is the boot camp, which runs from 10 to 12 weeks. 

“We are able to offer classes from any of our campuses around the world. The instructors can be from other countries, which often works well if you want to take a class at night, since the instructor is in another time zone. A lot of learners want to gain the perspective of someone from another country. But the teaching assistant working with you is local, so you get the best of both worlds,” says Pereira.

He hopes to continue working with organisations to support them in their digital transformation journey. 

“Our success lies in helping people transform their careers. We have stories like that of a hair stylist who lost her job because of the pandemic, who then joined our software engineering programme and became a developer. Our hope is that there will be many more stories like this,” says Pereira.