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Business lessons from 2020 – Part 1 – Specialization or generalization

2020 was a year filled with challenges. A lot has changed in the way we work. The speed of change has been radical. Millions of employees worldwide are struggling to reinvent themselves. In the quest to adapt to a new set of challenges an unlikely question has come up. Should employees pursue specialized skills or should they opt for more generic qualifications? We aim to find out.


Having multiple skills improves employability. This is one of the major workplace lessons to be derived from the COVID-19 crisis. Having one specialty worked well enough in the past, for the most part. That’s certainly not the case anymore. Organizations the world over are reskilling their employees. Amazon has pledged $700 million towards upskilling and reskilling its workforce. This will involve Amazon employees with a technology background to acquire skills in machine learning. Many of the non-technical employees will transition into software roles. MasterCard is also reportedly upskilling its staff through Degreed: The Upskilling Platform.

A McKinsey report from July 2020 points out that 14% of the workforce across all major organizations needs to be reskilled. 40% of the workforce in the entire US will have to be fully or partially reskilled. LinkedIn’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report echoes similar views. According to a survey 99% of learning and development executives fear a drop in productivity and customer experience. To counter this challenge, organizations must close the skill gaps within the next 3-5 years. The report indicates that 57% of talent developers now focus on leadership and management skills. 40% said they would emphasize communication skills.

The must-have skill set

The McKinsey report identifies 3 important skills employees must have. First, we must be comfortable working in a fully digital environment. That means we must possess the ability to manage big projects remotely. Next are interpersonal skills. In a rapidly morphing ‘distance economy’, companies expect their employees to have superlative interpersonal skills. The ability to cultivate relationships remotely will be vital. Finally, communication skills apply to all interactions. Employees are now increasingly expected to work in teams. We must have the faculty to communicate clearly and convincingly.

To this end private hospitals in the UK trained their clinicians and other medical staff in ‘video consultations’. They can now work together to offer safe remote diagnoses. IBM launched its Open P-TECH platform. It helps develop professional skills online. The platform offers courses on hard skills like cyber security, blockchains, artificial intelligence, and IoT. It also has courses on soft skills such as interpersonal skills and problem solving abilities. This initiative is aimed at all IBM professionals in countries like India.

Soft skill courses also gained popularity on e-learning platforms. Coursera recorded a 1,200% increase in the subscriptions of soft skills courses. Yale University is offering courses such as ‘The Science of well-being’. The University of California has launched ‘Learning How to Learn’. : Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. These are two of the most popular soft skills courses on Coursera.


Specialized skills are still useful. Recruitment agency Roger Half recently published a study titled ‘2020 Employment Trends: The Demand for Skilled Talent in the COVID-19 Landscape’. It concluded that the COVID-19 crisis has not reduced the demand for specialist jobs significantly. In fact, highly specialized professionals such as IT auditors, financial managers, systems analysts, database and network administrators, communications specialists, and content strategists continue to be in high demand. More than 40% of all available jobs in the next few years will be for specialists.


The job market is expanding again. Long term employment projections by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics support these findings. For example the number of financial management jobs in US is expected to rise by 15% from 2020-2030. 107,800 new jobs will be created during the decade in this domain. Computer and IT-related jobs will rise by 11% (50,700 new jobs). Healthcare will see the largest increase. The demand for nurses will increase by 53% (110,500 more by 2030). A recent American Action Forum study estimates that the US may experience a shortage of 8.5 million employees, amounting to $1.2 trillion in lost economic output.

As in the past, US employers will explore international talent pools to fill these positions. Millions of migrants live and work the US. They transfer money back to their home countries as remittances. Higher earnings and better quality of life attract expat professionals to US shores.


2020 redefined what organizations look for in prospective employees. Specialized workers will still be highly regarded. However, specialization alone will not be enough. Qualified professionals must also possess adequate digital and interpersonal skills. An analysis by Forbes concluded that employees with multiple skills will enjoy ‘relative insulation’ from any possible economic turmoil of the future.

About the author:

Hemant G is a contributing writer at Sparkwebs LLC, a Digital and Content Marketing Agency. When he’s not writing, he loves to travel, scuba dive, and watch documentaries.

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