The Coronavirus-Fueled Trend For Learning New Skills Is More Than Fleeting

In mid-April, when much of the world was shielding from coronavirus in lockdown, Google searches for terms like ‘online courses’ and ‘free online courses’ reached a historic high. 

LinkedIn reported that in the first week of April, people watched 1.7 million hours of video content on LinkedIn Learning compared 560,000 hours in the first week of January.

And a survey of 2,002 U.K. adults taken during the lockdown by The Open University found 24% had taken on additional learning opportunities to “boost their employability and protect the value of their skills”.

While platforms like LinkedIn did make some online learning content that had previously been behind a paywall free to watch during the pandemic–which will have temporarily increased user figures–Google searches suggest this may be more than a passing trend. 

Although interest has declined since that peak week in April, those search terms have still not returned to their pre-coronavirus levels. Clearly, our appetite for learning is not yet sated.

Why learning?

The reasons are manifold. Some, without a commute, are making the most of more time in the day to learn, while others–like Sam Browne, who saw his business Findaband falter to a dead stop after coronavirus–have little other choice. “We went from so much work we could barely keep up, to a few weeks of paying out refunds all day long, to nothing at all,” he recalls.

Browne seized the opportunity to learn website design and development. He says: “I’d always just hired people to do this for me, but since I had plenty of time on my hands and no income, I made the decision to acquire these skills myself, then build something new.” He opted for a Squarespace design course, and separate tutorials in CSS and Photoshop.

His newly-acquired skills led him to launch a second business, which showcases the best sites built using Squarespace, and sells templates, plugins and design courses to website designers.

While some people upskill because they need to protect their earning potential, others are increasingly persuaded by their employers, like those at call answering service AnswerConnect, which has built a culture of “perpetual professional growth”. 

Employee Ben Graham, a content manager, says employees are encouraged to spend at least 150 minutes learning per week and the company pays for relevant professional courses and books. Graham says he and many of his colleagues have put aside even more time to learn during lockdown in a bid to protect their mental health.

He adds: “We share resources with each other, recommend new articles and debate the merits of different publications. It benefits the company to have employees continually developing their skills, but it’s also essential to my mental acuity and personal wellbeing.”

Everyone benefits

A mentally well, present and productive workforce is incentive enough, but there are other benefits. Research by the American Society for Training and Development looked at the training investments of 575 U.S.-based, publicly traded firms between 1996 and 1998. It found an increase of $680 in a firm’s training expenditures per employee generates, on average, a 6% improvement in a firm’s total shareholder return in the following year, even after controlling for many other important factors. Firms that spent the most on training also enjoyed higher profit margins and higher income per employee.

Meanwhile labour markets are undergoing huge transformations. By 2022, more than half (54%) of all employees will require significant re- and upskilling says the World Economic Forum 2018 Future of Jobs Report. Of these, 35% are expected to require additional training of up to six months, 9% will require reskilling lasting six to 12 months, and 10% will require training of more than a year. 

It’s for all these reasons e-learning is becoming an ever-popular fixture in digital workplaces. Rather than sending employees away to platforms like Coursera, those companies designing online ecosystems to support long-term remote work practices are building in dedicated portals that can be populated with courses and training packages.

This is coupled with tools to effect cultural change: you’ll see chat channels dedicated to learning, people filming and posting 10-minute video summaries of completed courses in company social media feeds, badges earned and proudly ‘pinned’ to online profiles.

Interestingly, the recent lockdown appears to have persuaded some employers that training should extend beyond professional development and into personal and creative passions, such as online music lessons in guitar and piano, to masterclasses in crafts or creative writing, with those who take part talking up the minimizing effect on stress and the benefits of activating different parts of the brain. 

There’s little doubt we’ll see e-learning portals populated with far more than work-related training modules in the coming years, as the working world grasps the wide-ranging benefits of a lifetime of learning.

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