Upskilling: the key to emerging stronger in the new normal

Randa Bahsoun Labour and Social Development Leader | Government and Public Sector Partner, PwC Middle East 27 January, 2021

This article first appeared at Harvard Business Review Arabia.


2020 has proven to be a challenging year for many organisations. CEOs have had to take decisive steps to keep their business running along with keeping their people safe and productive. While securing and maintaining talent is a recurring issue, it’s become clear that companies that have started their upskilling journey are in a better position to weather the impact of COVID-19 and adapt to the new normal than those that have not.

Before the pandemic, CEOs were already concerned about having the talent that they need. In 2018, 70% of Middle East executives who took part in PwC’s 22nd Annual Global CEO Survey1 were concerned about the availability of key skills. At the end of last year that number had grown to 81%.2 Today, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for people with the right skills has only become even more urgent.

Disconnect between leaders and employees

Organisations that are willing to invest in upskilling are likely to have an engaged audience. In PwC’s GCC Hopes & Fears Survey,3 conducted between October and November 2019, 96% of adults agreed that they would learn new skills or completely retrain to improve their future employability. Furthermore, most workers said they welcome new technologies – 82% were positive about the impact of technology on their day-to-day work – but only 23% are learning new skills through their employers to better understand or use technology.

This is in sharp contrast with what regional CEOs believe. In PwC’s 23rd Annual Global CEO Survey, 7 out of 10 executives were confident that they had made some progress in improving workers’ and leaders’ knowledge of technology and 64% said they had made moderate to significant progress in establishing an upskilling programme to develop a mix of soft, technical and digital skills.

The above data shows that some work needs to be done to align employee expectations with how leaders perceive their upskilling programmes. The current mismatch could be related to underutilisation of employees that have been upskilled or due to a discrepancy between the new skills that are taught and what employees want to learn.


How much progress has your organisation made in the following areas related to upskilling? (showing only those who responded “moderate - significant progress”)

Upskilling: the key to emerging stronger in the new normal

Source: PwC’s 23rd Annual Global CEO Survey

What’s holding CEOs back

There are a variety of reasons why CEOs could be cautious about developing their upskilling initiatives. More than a quarter (26%) of the Middle East CEOs in PwC’s 23rd Annual Global CEO Survey were worried about the disruption that an immersive upskilling programme can have on their day-to-day business activities. 17% were also concerned about retaining upskilled talent who might be more in demand from competitors after they have learned new skills. While both are a possibility, they’re a good indication of a successful upskilling programme. The key to holding on to employees with key skills is to ensure that there is a plan in place for utilising them so they can see the value of their new skills and are encouraged to put them to good use for their organisation.

Business leaders were also concerned about defining which skills their business will need in the future (13%), having sufficient resources to deliver effective upskilling programmes (11%) and the quality of external parties who conduct relevant upskilling programmes (9%). The latter should become less of a problem in the new normal as more learning becomes virtual and there’s greater access to global top talent. To ensure the most value, organisations should ask their potential vendors for user reviews of both the course and instructors and review case studies of their work.

COVID-19 has shown us that human resistance to embracing change can fall away overnight and that we can’t afford to wait for clarity on what exactly the future of work will look like. Instead, organisations need to prioritise building transferable skills now that prepare their people and create a culture of adaptability.

Please rank the three greatest challenges your organisation currently faces in its upskilling efforts.

Upskilling: the key to emerging stronger in the new normal

Source: PwC’s 23rd Annual Global CEO Survey

Progress on upskilling can breed confidence

Those organisations that have been successful in developing their employees’ skills are already reaping the benefits. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 9 out 10 Middle East business leaders said their upskilling programme was effective in driving greater business growth and higher workforce productivity while a further 8 out of 10 CEOs saw improved talent acquisition and retention, stronger corporate culture and more employee engagement.4

As organisations transition to the new normal, the benefits of well-developed upskilling programmes will be crucial for building confidence and competitive advantage. At PwC, globally we had more than 200,000 people shift to a fully remote working model in a matter of two weeks when lockdowns started. Had we not prioritised investing in upskilling our people prior to COVID-19, there is no doubt, we would not have been able to adapt so quickly.

How effective are your upskilling programmes in achieving the following outcomes? (Showing “effective” summary.)

Upskilling: the key to emerging stronger in the new normal

Source: PwC’s 23rd Annual Global CEO Survey

Time to take action

5 key recommendations for a successful upskilling programme
Set a clear direction and lead from the front
Remember that upskilling and reskilling are both important
Provide time, energy and motivation to learn
Identify your priority skills and skills gaps
Track and measure results

As organisations continue to respond to this new business environment, it’s vital for CEOs to focus on developing the skills of their workforce. They need to send a clear message about their vision and strategy – including why they are prioritising upskilling – and lead from the front. Creating the right culture within the organisation that incentivises employees to take charge of their learning journey is vital.

“It is imperative for organisations to take action now. With the rate of technological advancement – and with COVID-19 accelerating change – organisations will need to invest in upskilling their people. It is less about technical skills and more about developing a workforce that is more creative, agile and prepared for the future.” Randa Bahsoun, New world. New skills. Middle East leader

In the long term, upskilling will raise employees’ productivity as digital transformation progresses. In the short term, reskilling will be important to help people work in new roles created by COVID-19. Learning new skills takes considerable time so it’s imperative that employees feel supported – investing in well-being and work-life balance can be a great way to keep people engaged and motivated.

The hardest challenge is to identify the key skills that the organisation needs and the potential skills gaps. At PwC, we have a five-step plan for upskilling that starts with analysing the transferable skills that work today and in the future. We use our Skills Expander digital platform to create an inventory of currently available skills within the organisation and new skills that are required. Following this, we build a future-proof skills strategy and lay the foundation for the cultural shift. Only then are we ready to create and deploy upskilling programmes which use key behavioural economics principles to deliver the right learning experience and rapid results.

Finally, it’s critical to focus on the return on investment (ROI) and showcase the benefits of upskilling. Success can be measured in terms of financial results, customer satisfaction, employee retention, talent attraction or societal impact – your business can lead the way in preparing people for the future of work.

PwC’s ‘New world. New skills.’ programme

New world. New skills. is PwC’s global programme to help millions of people around the world improve their understanding, skills and knowledge for the digital world. We are working with other organisations across the world, building on our work with clients and on upskilling our 276,000 people.

About the 23rd Annual Global CEO Survey

We surveyed 3,501 CEOs in 83 territories between September and October 2019. This article is based on the Middle East results of that survey. Find out more and read the full report here.

1) “PwC’s 22nd Annual Global CEO Survey,” PwC Middle East, 2019,
2) “PwC’s 23rd Annual Global CEO Survey,” PwC Middle East, 2020,
3) “New world. New skills. Insights from the GCC Hopes and Fears survey,” PwC Middle East, 2020,
4) “PwC’s 23rd Annual Global CEO Survey,” PwC Middle East, 2020,

Contact us

Randa Bahsoun

Labour and Social Development Leader | Government and Public Sector Partner, PwC Middle East

Tel: +971 4 304 3487

Eyhab Abdeen

Middle East Workforce Partner, PwC Middle East

Jade Hopkins

Middle East Marketing & Communications Leader, PwC Middle East

Tel: +971 4 304 3945

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