Upskilling in the Age of COVID-19, a Discussion with James Chia, CEO of ArcLab

March 17, 20217:14 pm3547 views

There’s no better time than now for talent upskilling and reskilling. In 2020, we saw an economic recession, large-scale retrenchment, and skill displacement. Major disruptions have shifted the dynamics of the labour market, emphasising that the need to embrace learning and upskilling is not just for new jobseekers, but also experienced workers. 

When global companies are struggling to stay afloat, the best thing employees can do is expand their skill set and adapt to market changes. On that note, James Chia, CEO of ArcLab, shares with HR in Asia why learning should not stop at junior roles, but should be a lifelong process. Read on..

Question: James, employers are now more open to the idea of hiring candidates with no prior experience but have relevant skills training. What are the main considerations behind this?

Answer: This is an important and welcome mindset change as it helps solve the problem of fresh graduates not being able to get jobs to get experience.

This is facilitated by closer collaboration between our academic institutions and employers, so our education institutions can nurture graduates with industry-relevant skills – which are then honed through work in companies. At ArcLab, we’re in the midst of a project with an education institution to do just this – and glad for the opportunity to effect this change.

To further expound on this – we can say quality training and experience go hand in hand. Training equips the employee with pre-requisite skills to perform their job scope better at an early stage and gaining valuable experience in the process – benefiting themselves individually, their employers and the industry at large.

Question: The future of work post-pandemic lies in lifelong learning to ensure lifelong employability. How is this trend affecting both new jobseekers and experienced workers?

Answer: The Chinese adage 活到老学到老 (roughly translated to mean that “one is never too old to learn”) continues to be apt in today’s world. 

With many industries needing to pivot in our new Covid-normal, it is now more important than ever to continuously upskill the workforce so that skills remain relevant. This is more urgent today as our knowledge cycles are shortening rapidly, and automation puts some jobs at risk. 

This is where short-form bursts of learning like what is provided through ArcLab can greatly help in reducing upfront costs of creating training, and can be delivered in a very short turnaround time so it is contextually-current for the workforce and workplace.

Question: We believe that upskilling is essential for talents to keep up with technological and societal changes. But what are upskilling challenges, and how do we tackle them?

Answer: Traditional workforce training today is typically front-loaded when staff join, meaning staff have no context when they are trained, and can’t find it when they need it. Training is expensive & time-consuming. It’s also logistically-intensive, disruptive to work and requires gathering many people in a small room. This is also obviously no longer feasible with the onset of COVID. 

Additionally, while there are many good trainers, there are also many ‘training’ sessions that are also no more than ‘talking head’ sessions with the trainer more focussed on delivering the material then the trainees’ learning. So employers face a risk of inconsistent training and differing standards.

Digital and mobile learning helps us solve this problem – helping employees learn in the flow of work, receive uniformly good training that’s not trainer specific, and get good learner analytics data to see who’s learnt the material, who hasn’t, and adopt the necessary interventions for staff who need it.

Question: Senior leaders should take part in encouraging their companies into the habit of lifelong learning. How can they start this initiative? 

Answer: All lasting organisational change must always start from the top. Much as we think tech & digital (and I say this even with ArcLab as a tech platform) is the be-all-and-end-all, it really isn’t. We have to start with people. Understanding the workforce’s needs, what motivates them, and how to align with the goals of the organisation, with the right mindsets, right incentives, the right tool kit. That’s where support from the very top is needed, and change starts with our leaders first.

Question: Then, what to do to employees who might be refusing to take part in the upskilling programme? 

Answer: An understanding of the worker in question is always important. There might be legitimate reasons why the employee is not participating. Is it a time constraint? He/she may have aged parents or young children to take care of after work, effectively working a ‘double shift’? Is it a language barrier making it difficult to understand the training materials which may be in English? 

If employers can take the time to go a step deeper, it shows the worker that they care, and also helps shape the training programme to be more efficient (e.g. in bite-sizes to reduce time needed) and more effective (e.g. in multiple languages). These are all possible on the ArcLab platform.

If we can build training into a holistic workforce development framework, aligned with compensation & benefits – that is even more ideal. So we put the money where the mouth is.

Question: How do L&D tools like ArcLab help modify training to be effective in the context of mass acceleration of transformative changes and business model pivots in the past year? 

Answer: With COVID-19, Organisations now no longer question the value of digital learning as remote work becomes default.

With the workplace transformed, our expectation is teams all over the world will continue to work remotely (at least part of the workweek) and in split arrangements for the foreseeable future. Employers will need to think about how to adapt their businesses accordingly, to operate as an ongoing concern and (if we dare dream it) to grow.

ArcLab is part of a larger Digital Transformation Journey of companies. Here in Singapore, last year, we helped EY/ Workforce Singapore with a HR Tech Transformation pilot for selected companies, and is part of a larger discussion with one of our customers to ‘virtualise’ their experience for staff & their organisation.

In this new normal, we expect mobile learning to be supporting organisations in a Business Continuity, as well as a Business-As-Usual situation. As in today’s environment, it’s no longer possible to gather 1-200 people in a training venue, so you have to do this more efficiently and effectively. 

So that’s where mobile learning comes in, as our phones are our common denominator in today’s workplace. Platforms like ArcLab like used to deliver bite-sized training modules and digital SOPs to workforces in a fuss-free way, direct to workers’ smartphones, and readily accessible WHEN they need the content.

The digital delivery also translates into data, and our learner analytics dashboard in the ArcLab platform helps employers glean important data and analytics about their workforce’s learning & ability to perform the required job role. This helps HR in staff development planning and optimising talent & people resources for different areas of the organisation – to support business objectives.


James is CEO & Co-Founder of ArcLab, a Mobile Learning SaaS platform that empowers organisations to upskill workforces effectively. 

James started his career at the Monetary Authority of Singapore, serving in London and Singapore as Portfolio Manager & Deputy Director. He is a graduate of Cornell University and the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs. He is also an Associate Lecturer at SIM Global Education and volunteers as a community mentor to lower-income children with Edugrow for Brighter Tomorrows.

James enjoys being present with family, reading, writing, running, macro-investing and technology. He is a long-suffering Tottenham Hotspur fan (since 1994), was present at their last trophy win at Wembley in 2008, and has never stopped believing.

Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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