The day after the pandemic: how to flatten the unemployment curve


The acceleration of changes brought about by the pandemic increased the risk of a rapid growth of people without necessary skills. While epidemiologists seek to “flatten the curve of cases”, in the world of work it would be virtuous to do so with the curve of those who are unemployed. 

In a context as complex and uncertain as the current one, it seems difficult to see beyond isolation. However, little by little, we are starting to think about “the day after” and which aspects to focus on.

The changes that are taking place will establish new habits. In particular, in the workplace, what appeared to be “the work of the future” has accelerated its arrival. At the beginning of the pandemic, virtual team meetings were standard practice for just a few. Today they are essential to enable business operations and there is almost no company that does not use them on a daily basis.

It is clear that “the work of the future” requires different skills than ones that are common today. Some are simple technological competencies – such as opening an account in BlueJeans and scheduling a meeting with three colleagues while others are behavioral – such as adapting communication to achieve similar progress to what could be achieved in a face-to-face meeting. Complex skills are also required. For example, an increasing number of positions today require predictive analytics knowledge, even in functions such as human resources, where we hardly have people with “hard” skills.

This acceleration in changes brought about by the pandemic increased the risk of a rapid growth of people without necessary skills. While epidemiologists seek to “flatten the curve of cases”, in the world of work it would be virtuous to “flatten the curve” of unemployment.

As organizations, and in particular, from the Human Resources (HR) function, where do we focus to achieve this ambitious goal? At Mercer, we see four areas of action:

  1. Identify the jobs that are at risk

    According to research we conducted for the World Economic Forum (WEF), approximately 10% of current jobs would cease to exist by 2025 and 35% would require significant changes. We conducted the research before the pandemic and today we believe that these changes will occur more rapidly. The HR action here is to deconstruct jobs and identify the impact of technology and changes needed in each one of them.

  2. Define the skills necessary for the future

    Some people predict that changes in technology will determine the massive replacement of human labor. We have an optimistic perspective, in which people’s work is “amplified” by technology and algorithms. Freeing people from performing routine and repetitive tasks will allow them to use their distinctive human talents, such as solving complex problems and reducing the risks of mistakes. According to WEF research, the skills that will be most in demand include critical thinking, learning and programming. The HR action here is to connect on the deep and varied research available on this topic and map those capabilities with the organization’s strategy.

  3. Assess gaps, positions at risk and future skills

    The most significant opportunity is looking at workers who today occupy positions most at risk. When evaluating the skills of those workers, gaps in existing skills versus needed skills show us where to put the focus and effort to empower our employees. Technology is an important resource. The HR action here is to use online tests to assess employees’ mastery of necessary skills. There are many tests that only require a fraction of what they did just a few years ago in terms of time and money.

  4. Enhance learning

    Of those employees with a high probability of significant disruption to their work, only 1 in 3 have participated in training in the last 12 months, according to recent research. There is a long road ahead to build a culture of continuous learning. Employees who have made the most progress have connected learning driven from the organization (top-down) with learning driven by individuals (bottom-up). Top-down driven learning shows employees that senior executives are committed to learning and reinforces the importance of spending time on it. Individual driven learning recognizes the need to trust individuals to choose the actions that will guarantee future employability.

The opportunities and responsibilities of HR are to act in relation to each of those four axes described above – allowing us to contribute to our organizations and society as a whole.