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European Vocational Skills Week
News article9 October 2020Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion

Oscar Stege Unger, Director at the Wallenberg non-profit Foundation



Skills shift: the power of purpose

A global pandemic caught the world off guard. Covid-19 dismantled and decimated livelihoods big and small. With infections and deaths rising, countries shutdown. In an instant, jobs were lost or furloughed en masse.

But as we slowly inch towards recovery, a big part of the solution lies in not repeating the mistakes of the past. Could education and vocational training - specifically upskilling and reskilling, play a major role in re-imagining workforces? And most importantly: could it help those who lost their income, find a new path in the new world we all find ourselves?

As we chart what a post-Covid era could look like, we spoke with Oscar Stege Unger, Director at the Swedish non-profit Wallenberg Foundation and board member of the Scandinavian Airlines (SAS).

Mr Unger grimly recalls the day Covid-19 upended the airline. In the peak of the crisis, the aviation industry as a whole came to a complete stop. But instead of letting the crisis engulf the business, Unger used his influence, skills and forward thinking to help the most vulnerable - the airline’s cabin crew, repurposing the Wallenberg Foundation as a vehicle for innovation in the most desperate of times.

“I remember being at our SAS board meeting on March 15th and an absolute shutdown was the only way forward. SAS’s management decided there and then that we needed to furlough almost 90 percent of our staff immediately.
Imagine you’re an SAS cabin crew member and you’re flying home from Hong Kong to Copenhagen serving champagne to business travellers. On Sunday you’re furloughed.”

“On Monday we saw the dire situation unfolding in the healthcare sector and we moved quickly to re-skill cabin crew to work on the frontline to support the healthcare system. Cabin crew are very skilled in dealing with difficult situations. They also have basic medical training.”

And so the “Skills Shift” initiative was born with immediate project funding provided by the Wallenberg Foundation. A short five day hybrid programme in collaboration with Sophiahemmet University in Sweden, saw students taught both online and in classrooms.

Out of a total of 1,100 SAS cabin crew, just on that first Monday, over 300 of the furloughed staff had signed up. But it wasn’t just a successful idea. The feedback from hospitals on new recruits was positive. Help had come for them at the height of the crisis and that contributed to holding the health system together.

For Mr Unger, the cabin crew were the real heroes of the story. They put everything aside for a bigger cause than themselves.

“For me the biggest takeaway of the Skill Shift initiative was the power of the purpose or vision. But to take an idea like this and jettison it to a larger or long term vision, there needs to be a country by country ecosystem; - a collaboration of governments, unions, business, academia and training providers. You also need funding and speed of innovation. When you have that idea, embark on a pilot, break barriers and try to make it happen.
Investment in upskilling and reskilling can take time. So give it time. We need to motivate ourselves as short term gains won’t come easy. It’s a long haul investment for the future.”

Reskilling and upskilling are crucial and can become reality fairly rapidly, as the experience of the Wallenberg Foundation shows!

More insights from Oscar Stege Unger in this short video.

Post Covid mindset & opportunities

Many of us now find ourselves ‘working from home.’ We have replaced face-to-face meetings with a variety of online apps and tools, interacting with our co-workers in a new way from the comfort of our homes.

And examples of companies making the shift away from the traditional nine to five office hours jobs are on the increase.
Schroders a FTSE 100 asset management firm told its 5,000 workers they no longer have to return to their London office. Accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), reopened their UK offices in July but predict a more even split between office and home working in the medium-to-long term.
In Germany, a survey by the Ifo Institute, showed that 54% of businesses want to make greater use of home offices than before the outbreak. A quick search of jobs in Spain show many listed with the caveat that you can “work from home.”

“It’ll come down to corporate leadership and governments to show the way. To show people where opportunity lies. Countries will also need to navigate where they want to go and what they want to do. That will help determine the type of jobs and industry we put money into.”

But there is too an onus on the individual - to adopt a fresh approach.
“We need to change the way we look at our career and how we can re-sell and find new professional paths. In a pandemic you may have nothing to lose but otherwise? It’s difficult for someone to embark on that journey, to invest that time and energy. That person will need to make up their own mind and say “I need to try this thing.””

Mr Unger’s foundation recently conducted an independent survey with HR heads of Swedish companies. They asked what percentage of staff needed to be upskilled in the next three to five years. The answer was over 50%. Next was a question on whether the company knew how to train staff properly. Answering honestly, they said no. And finally when probed regarding the duration of training, the data showed that training was only one to three weeks a year.

So can we draw any positives from this pandemic? Yes. Almost instantly the global workforce learned to adapt and in many cases - work from home. In doing so, the individual as well as the company or organisation, learned to operate almost instantly in a new way. That resilience and innovation shines the light on endless possibilities for the future.

He is the co-founder of the Skill Shift Initiative “Beredskapslyftet” (in Swedish), which is the mobilization of available human resources, mostly laid off cabin crews from airline companies, to support Swedish healthcare tackle the corona virus outbreak.
In a period of 3 weeks, Stege Unger with a recruitment agency (in charge of matching and selection) and a University (training provision) and contacts in government, created a 1 week upskilling course taken by 600 people who swapped careers (temporarily) from airlines, tourism, catering etc. into health care to help hospitals. The initiative was subsequently enlarged to secondary schools to relieve teachers from administrative tasks.