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There is a clear correlation between CEO levels of confidence and their progress on digital upskilling. Read on to discover why you should invest in learning, and make upskilling a strategic priority – even during the pandemic.


Read on to discover:


In January 2019, a survey found 46% of CEOs in favour of upskilling their workforce to fill the skills gap. But 12 months later, only 18% said they had made significant progress. Meanwhile, one in ten of the largest companies in the surveys have made “no progress at all”.

These findings were published in PwC’s latest Annual Global CEO Survey, featuring responses from more than 1500 CEOs around the world. 

Even before the outbreak of the pandemic, the survey showed “a record level of pessimism” amongst leaders. In fact, only 27% of all CEOs surveyed were “very confident” in their prospects for revenue growth in 2020 – a low level not seen since 2009. 

Interestingly, however, the study revealed a clear correlation between the CEOs’ levels of confidence and their progress on upskilling. Overall, those who had made “significant progress” were more optimistic about the global economy, and had more confidence in their own revenue growth:

CEOs who are ahead on upskilling


CEOs who are lagging behind

34% believe that the financial situation would improve over the next 12 months

Only 15% believe the same

38% are “very confident” in their 12-month revenue growth prospects

Just 20% are confident in their growth

PwC’s 23rd Global CEO Survey. Conducted September-October 2019. Survey group consisted of 1,581 chief executives in 83 territories.

Organisations who were further along on the upskilling curve were ahead of their peers in several ways. Of those who had begun implementing upskilling programmes, 20% said they had been “very effective” in addressing the skills gap so far; among companies with more advanced programmes, that share rose to 35%.

In addition, CEOs reported a range of benefits, including:

  • 41% said it had been “very effective” in improving employee engagement; among companies with more advanced programmes, that share rose to 60%
  • 93% said upskilling programs increased productivity; 30% said it had been “very effective” in doing so
  • 30% said it had accelerated digital transformation
  • 28% said it helped improve talent acquisition and retention
  • Companies that were more advanced reported higher gains overall

The benefits of upskilling are abundantly clear. So what’s holding leaders back?


1. Holding on to upskilled talent

CEOs are worried about investing substantial amounts in upskilling, only to see valuable employees leave. Overall, 14% of CEOs said this was their biggest challenge – but it was number one challenge for 19% of CEOs in the sectors of tech/media, industrial manufacturing, and automotive.

Interestingly, the more CEOs invest in upskilling, the more they worry about talent retention: 


Source: PwC’s 23rd Global CEO Survey 

Of course, it’s crucial to keep hold of workers with key skills –especially in turbulent times. But if you’re worried about losing people to the competition after you have invested in upskilling them, that’s a sure sign that your upskilling programme is working. 

People want to learn new skills – in fact, they’re ready to entirely retrain. According to a recent survey of 22,000 people around the world, 77% would be willing to upskill in order to become more employable. However, research shows that only one in three feel that they have been given the opportunity by their employer to develop the digital and transferable skills they need. 

And if you don’t offer any upskilling or retraining, your employees are more likely to leave. For example, in a recent global survey of office workers by software company UiPath, 88% said they’d be more willing to continue working at a company that offered upskilling and reskilling opportunities. 

2. Deciding what skills to teach

The world is much less predictable than we once thought – and the skills we might need tomorrow are a moving target. It’s no wonder, then, that 12% of all respondents said that identifying what skills to teach posed the biggest challenge. 

With such an uncertain future, what skills should we be investing in? According to PwC, a “well-designed programme” must focus on “digital skills, resilience and agility”. The majority (74%) of CEOs are concerned about the availability of these critical skills – and of those, 32% are “extremely concerned”.

Specifically, organisations need to build transferable skills that prepare people no matter what happens in the future. It’s about adaptability, creativity, and problem solving – what used to be called “soft skills” are now in high demand, and they can have a harder edge when combined with digital skills. 

Here’s the good news: the majority of global chief financial officers surveyed by PwC (93%) are confident their companies can build employee skills for the future. And with the greater confidence levels seen in organisations with more mature upskilling programmes in place, combined with increased productivity and generated growth, it’s clear that upskilling can help create a competitive advantage in an uncertain future.


3. How to lead from the top – upskilling leaders

These are challenging times for CEOs and their people. In many industries, people need to be reskilled. Some will face the anxiety of being furloughed or being made redundant. Many are fearful of the future – this, in itself, can be a major drain on productivity. And employees are looking to senior leaders to forge a path forward. 

Firstly, it’s important for leaders to set a clear direction, and provide a strong  narrative that explains their strategy and future vision – including upskilling initiatives. 

Second, CEOs can start by upskilling personally, and encourage others to engage with learning. You don’t have to learn to code – but you do need to understand the impact and possibilities of new technologies on your business.

Third, it’s vital to make people feel engaged and supported, because engaged workers embrace upskilling and deliver higher levels of productivity. According to the latest PwC Annual Global CEO Survey, 60% of CEOs who had introduced an upskilling program said their program was “highly effective” in improving culture and employee engagement. In the PwC 2020 Global Digital IQ survey, 86% of respondents said their digital training and education programs have improved employee engagement and performance. And according to Gallup, highly engaged business units have a 41% reduction in absenteeism and a 17% increase in productivity. 

Finally, CEOs and leaders need to build agile, resilient workforces that embrace a culture of lifelong learning. Upskilling isn’t a short-term goal, and the pandemic is just one of many disruptions that are likely to upend the world of work in the 21st century. Our ability to weather future crises will depend on how agile we are – and we can only succeed through sustained, long-term effort.

Now more than ever, it’s important to keep up morale. Make sure to provide time, energy, and motivation to learn. Leaders need to understand the needs of their employees, what motivates them, what drains them, and what empowers them – especially now that so many people are working from home, isolated from their usual daily routines.


“Savvy leaders who value and nurture their workforce’s innate talents, ability to learn, and desire to do good work will have a great chance of boosting their business and retaining and attracting talent. They will beat the skills gap.”

– Carol Stubbings and Nicole Wakefield, PwC, in Strategy+Business

4. The cost of upskilling – is it worth it?

Upskilling takes considerable time and money, so of course cost is a concern – especially during an economic crisis. Even before COVID-19, CEOs in government and public services cited cost as their biggest challenge. Not to mention the fact that upskilling is potentially disruptive to day-to-day business – almost one in ten CEOs surveyed by PwC said this was their top concern.

One in three jobs are likely to be severely disrupted by technological change in the next decade, according to research from PwC. With 3.3 billion people currently employed, that’s approximately one billion people who will need upskilling. The World Economic Forum estimates that upskilling the 1.37m US workers whose jobs are threatened will cost $34bn in itself – multiply that by 100 to take in the rest of the world, and the sums become staggering.  

Yet the cost of inaction will be worse. Already, millions of jobs are going unfilled, and it’s not possible to recruit enough skilled people to fill the gap. The only option is to help members of our existing workforce gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the digital age. 

Despite the importance of upskilling, learning budgets are often the first thing to go when faced with an economic downturn. But be aware that axing all training budgets may send the wrong message to your employees, and harm future competitiveness.

Upskilling should be seen as a strategic priority. “Companies need to invest in their people,” says Carol Stubbings, Joint Global Leader of PwC’s People and Organisation. “That’s how many companies will survive this crisis and become stronger.”

To justify the cost of upskilling, it’s critical to prove return on investment (ROI). Buy-in from senior leadership and engagement within the workforce will quickly fall away if there is no clear evidence of benefits. So don’t forget to track your success – this can be measured in terms of financial results, customer satisfaction, employee retention, talent attraction, or even societal impact. If you invest in learning, your company will be seen as playing its part in preparing people to thrive in the future.


“[U]pskilling people should not be a sideshow to the other efforts CEOs are making in order to stay solvent and recover from the economic downturn. Upskilling should be a priority in a world where the speed of change is unprecedented and the path ahead is ambiguous and uncertain.”

– Carol Stubbings and Nicole Wakefield, PwC, in Strategy+Business


Invest in learning

With effective upskilling programmes, organisations can emerge from the COVID-19 crisis more confident, more agile, and ready to benefit from growth when the economic climate improves. Those who have taken action already seeing the advantages – and this should send a clear message to those still on the fence about upskilling.

If you’re ready to take the plunge and invest in upskilling your organisation, you’ve got to find a learning programme that’s up to scratch. The easiest (and most reliable) way to guarantee that is to choose an accredited learning provider.

Last year, Circus Street became accredited by the Learning and Performance Institute (LPI), an internationally recognised accreditation program that independently benchmarks hundreds of learning providers and assess the quality of the programmes they offer.


“Circus Street impressed the LPI by clearly evidencing its ongoing commitment to high quality, both in its product portfolio development and in the personal development of its employees. As such, I can highly recommend Circus Street to prospective buyers of learning solutions.”

– Edmund Monk, CEO of LPI


As a global online learning business, we provide companies with a suite of award winning courses specialising in digital, written by industry experts and accredited by industry bodies. We help organisations empower L&D leaders to break down organisational silos, build digital capabilities, and create cultures of continuous learning – using effective learning. 

With a full online provision of training, we an interactive learning experience on all channels – with increased flexibility, and no geographical constrictions. Our unique approach uses professional presenters and engaging animation to dive deep into the concepts of digital and keep learners switched on. Finally, pre- and post-assessments in lessons help you to prove the knowledge uplift of learners and effectiveness of your learning program.


“We chose Circus Street because the product is just outstanding.”

– Jennifer Galichon, Director of Marketing Operations, Unilever North America


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