One of the most impressive stories of digital transformation I heard about during the pandemic came from my favourite purveyor of sourdough bread – Wellington’s Shelly Bay Baker.

Prior to the pandemic, the popular bakery did most of its business selling bread through Wellington retailers, cafes and restaurants, a business-to-business arrangement that hinged on maintaining relationships with a small number of customers.

Then level 4 lockdown was declared, almost two years ago to the day, sending everyone home. 

All of those Wellington eateries closed their doors. 

Within a week, Shelly Bay had pivoted, offering home deliveries direct to consumers via its website. 

Fast work

It meant the team of bakers had to revamp Shelly Bay’s website and introduce an e-commerce platform. 

They created a digital mailing list and newsletter to communicate directly with bread lovers and started doing digital marketing campaigns. 

They ramped up Shelly Bay’s social media activity and used a route-planning app to most efficiently deliver all of that bread across town.

For Shelly Bay, it has created an enduring direct-to-consumer arm to its business, including a bread subscription service that will help insulate it from the impacts of any future lockdowns.

Most businesses have been through a version of this, a rapid amount of change in a short period of time, with a pressing need to employ digital platforms in new ways. 

A side effect is that we now have an estimated one million employees across the economy who will need to be trained up in digital skills in the next year alone, to cope with the change wrought by the pandemic.

Training for 1 million

That’s according to a report from economist consultants AlphaBeta, who surveyed around 1,000 employees and 300 employers across a wide range of industries on behalf of the cloud platform provider, Amazon Web Services (AWS), which commissioned the study. 

Digital skills range from having proficiency in basic software packages to advanced skills in emerging technologies like cloud computing and AI (artificial intelligence).

We aren’t alone in facing this pressing skills deficit. 

An estimated 3.7 million Australian workers also need upskilling. 

Across the seven Asia-Pacific nations included in the report, India, Japan and Singapore among them, the total training need amounts to 86 million people. Retail and manufacturing are the sectors most in need of digital upskilling.

The two big in-demand skills across the region, according to employers, are the use of cloud-based tools and cybersecurity. 

Both are driven by the move to hybrid working triggered by the pandemic. 

But the pace of change, particularly in cloud-based software offerings like Salesforce, Xero, MailChimp and Hubspot, is driving a constant need for upskilling. 

Cloudy with a chance of fat fingers

Drilling down into the cloud category further, there will be increasing demand for people who can assist with cloud migration projects and in designing cloud platforms. 

Almost all employers recognise the need to offer digital skills training, but only 25% of NZ employers have a digital skills programme in place for their workers, says AlphaBeta.

According to the Productivity Commission’s Training New Zealand’s Workforce report, we have high rates of participation in work-related education and training, compared to other OECD countries. 

But the bulk of the training is, naturally enough, devoted to the immediate day to day business of the organisation and the credentials required to keep things ticking over and staff meeting compliance obligations. 

Digital skills have been neglected, despite them becoming integral to the work people do in every industry. 

Employees surveyed by AlphaBeta pointed to two big barriers preventing them from becoming digital-savvy – a lack of awareness of training options and a lack of time.

Our education system is gradually changing to accommodate the need for shorter training courses and more on-the-job training. 

“The New Zealand Qualifications Authority introduced micro-credentials to encourage shorter courses to support upskilling but a big issue continues to be a lack of awareness by Kiwi business and workers about what skills they might need,” NZTech chief executive Graeme Muller said yesterday.

Mapping skills requirements

Singapore tackled this problem back in 2016 by creating industry transformation maps for 23 sectors of the economy. 

They not only map out the top-level goals the country has set for each sector but the skills required for different occupations and the training programs for skills upgrading.

It has been a successful undertaking for the tech-savvy island state, which is in the process of refreshing the ITMs to reflect priorities in the wake of the pandemic. 

Our own efforts have been piecemeal in comparison or painfully slow in the case of most of the government’s much-vaunted industry transformation plans, though the Digital Boost scheme aimed at small businesses is a step in the right direction.

But employers don’t have to wait for the government’s guidance. 

There are already plenty of micro-credential and online learning options available for their workers to upskill in cloud platforms and cybersecurity. Some are even offered free by tech multinationals, including AWS. 

That work can start today. But it requires employers to think seriously about their digital skills needs, formalise training opportunities and reward people for proactively upskilling themselves.

All the evidence suggests that digital upskilling helps with staff retention and satisfaction, boosts productivity and allows workers to add more value to the organisation. 

In a tight labour market, it’s an area of skills training and development we can’t afford to neglect.