How to upskill during furlough

With no immediate end in sight for the government mandated lockdown, we are only just beginning to calculate what the long-term effects of the coronavirus will be on the economy, the job market, and people’s lives.

How to upskill during furlough

With no immediate end in sight for the government mandated lockdown, we are only just beginning to calculate what the long-term effects of the coronavirus will be on the economy, the job market, and people’s lives. In the short to medium term, millions of workers across the country remain furloughed as part of the UK Government’s coronavirus job retention scheme, which is currently set to be in place until at least June.

But as time marches on and the full temporariness of the retention scheme starts sinking in, the more that employees, freelancers and business owners alike will rightly begin worrying about what a return to “normality” actually looks like. Or whether a return to how things were is even possible at all. There is a long history of pandemics triggering societal change, and we may well already be seeing the first signs of this now, so how are people supposed to protect themselves from uncertainty? One of the answers lies in education.

Yes, it might seem strange to be focusing on your professional development by hitting the books in the midst of a global crisis. Yet with so much extra time (whether you’re furloughed or you’re just saving time on your commute), and with education more accessible than at any other time in human history, there is now a very real opportunity to reflect on your goals and career path. To shameless paraphrase Aristotle, education is more than just the best provision for your eventual future. It’s also the best provision for your immediate tomorrow. 

The first question you need to ask yourself – whether you are an entrepreneur or an employee – is ‘should I be upskilling or reskilling myself?’ That question largely hinges on whether you are planning to return to work where you were, or if the end of the lockdown will see you entering a new industry. There is no getting around the fact that certain industries are going to recover from this crisis at a slower rate than others. Retail and travel are two obvious examples, both of which have already let go huge numbers of employees. For some industries that were already struggling to adapt to ongoing societal change before the crisis, this recovery may not come at all.

While ‘upskilling’ for most people means doubling down on your pre-existing skills, expanding your knowledge to adjacent topics can often prove to be an equally beneficial use of your time. An example here is if you have your own business. Let’s say you are a physical retailer. Why not study photography, photoshop or graphic design to take better pictures for free and better present your offering to the world and make more sales? Even if you don’t master these to the level of a dedicated freelancer or agency, understanding how content is created places you on firmer footing to know what works best for you, and helps you to better communicate that.

Why not study marketing to better target your audience? A common pitfall of many SMEs is that they don’t optimise their customer acquisition strategy. They can be excellent at selling their product, but lack the ability to bring new potential buyers to the party – which is the core purpose of marketing. Why not study leadership to truly provide vision, direction and resources to your team? The current crisis has certainly underlined the importance of this, and the need for greater transparency, candour and a healthy dose of vision when overcoming challenges.

As a leading online education provider, we at Shaw Academy have seen a massive increase in people looking to upskill or reskill themselves in the past few weeks, and the metadata we’ve collected has shed light on where people are focusing their self-improvement energy. While the main motivations for taking a Shaw Academy course is fairly evenly split between wanting to start or grow a business (28%), self-improvement (27%) and professional improvement (24%), we’ve seen massive spikes of interest in courses teaching leadership skills, digital marketing and graphic design – each of which has experienced a three-fold increase of students. But even this shift pales in significance next to the number of applicants for our Diploma in Social Media Marketing course, with an 1100% increase in course attendees – underlining how crucial it has become in almost every personal and professional setting.

While it is often easier to upskill and evolve within the same industry, the current seismic shift in what counts as “normal life” has an increasing number of people contemplating reskilling. For many people in furlough this may be the first time in their adult life that they have had the chance to take a step back and ask themselves “What do I really want to do?” “What do I love?” and “What would not be ‘a job’ to me?”. Having the option to pursue your dream from a position of security removed is horrible, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use this chance to pursue your dream anyway. Perhaps you want to try your hand at coding, and all the opportunities that can open up. Or maybe you want to apply your good head for numbers to financial trading and investment? Is now the time you take your hobby or side business and turn it into your full-time job?

As a founder myself, I got the opportunity, in a climate much like today, to evaluate what I wanted to do. I am often asked would you do it again – the unequivocal answer is yes. I set up in 2012. It was a bearish market. We weren’t wrapped up in a massive bubble like the one just gone. There was no credit. The world was more like it is right now economically than what it was in 2019. But my decision to take the leap was made possible by taking what I already knew, building upon it and doing it as part of my own company. The abundance of education and self-improvement options available to people in this unprecedented time will be the catalyst for many more people to do the same.

As bleak as today might appear for many people, collectively it is in all our interests to view this in as positive a light as possible. Even if that means harnessing the fact that, at our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change. I would add that not everyone has the privilege of turning this pandemic into something productive. Making sure that you take time for yourself, and making sure you don’t overburden yourself in your efforts to improve yourself are just as important now as they were before the virus outbreak. But if you are already facing challenging times, ask yourself ‘can broadening my horizons and trying to do that thing that deep down I have always wanted to do possibly make my circumstances worse’ – oftentimes it won’t and it is better to be reaching for something than to not.

James Egan
James Egan

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