Outskilling: The Layoff Alternative

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We’re all being warned about technology disruption of the future workplace. The robots may indeed be coming for our jobs. From autonomous vehicles to AI data management, almost any role at any level of an organization could be replaceable by technology. And with the current Coronavirus pandemic, layoffs are becoming even more unavoidable.

Twentieth-century layoffs included outplacement services such as resume assistance, interview preparation and job search coaching. The process assumed workers would be looking for another position similar to the one that was eliminated.  

But a recent Wall Street Journal article by Lauren Weber suggests that companies might take a different approach in the future. “In our digital age, layoffs are a certainty, like death and taxes,” she writes. “But unemployment might not automatically follow if employers, educators, workers and policy makers can train people whose jobs are eliminated for new careers in expanding occupations.” 

Amazon is leading the way in the idea of “outskilling,” retraining workers for new occupations that might not be related to the work they currently do for the company. Amazon’s giant distribution centers pair humans with a fleet of sophisticated robots and material moving automation. It make s sense that the number of humans needed will shrink as technology becomes more adept at thinking, troubleshooting, and performing tasks that require dexterity.  

For years, Amazon has offered training classes onsite that offer workers a chance to earn certifications that may take them out of the company. In 2019, Amazon announced it would allow workers from all over the company to train for tech jobs through its Machine Learning University or learn software development skills through its Amazon Technical Academy. Employees can also participate in apprenticeships and get Amazon Web Services cloud certification at a discount. The company also gives employees $10,000 and three months’ pay to set up their own delivery firm to help fulfill its one-day shipping promise. And in 2020, Amazon has committed to hiring 100,000 additional workers and increasing pay for delivery and warehouse personnel in response to the unprecedented Coronavirus pandemic.

Some workforce experts predict this model will spread to other industries. A company planning layoffs would connect with education partners and local recruiters from other industries who will be hiring and who agree to take on newly-trained applicants.  The affected workers would get a choice of several weeks-long training programs customized to local employer needs and would be allowed to spend a few hours of the workweek in training.  

We’re rapidly approaching a time when this kind of program will be essential. The WSJ article reports: “By 2030, up to 30% of all work activities globally could be automated using current technologies, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Some 16 million to 54 million U.S. workers will need to switch occupations in that time.” 

Outskilling is a humane and smart response to unavoidable layoffs. Weber writes: “Layoffs are morale-killers and make employers look heartless; companies are loath to take on the reputation risk. Federal and state governments have an interest in minimizing claims for unemployment insurance, and want to avoid the domino effects of laid-off workers cutting their spending, losing their homes, moving away or worse.”  

Skilled coaches could use assessments, wage and job growth data, and other tools to help workers make informed choices and find the right fit for new jobs.  The ideal system requires a dramatic change in how companies treat job cuts. They’ll have to be transparent, open, and collaborative, replacing the secretive and toxic conditions that have characterized layoffs up to now. It’s a huge opportunity for companies to demonstrate good faith and thought leadership in uncertain times.  

Would your leadership team consider outskilling? Can they afford not to?