Outskilling: The Layoff Alternative

We’re all being warned about technology disruption of the future workplace. The robots may indeed be coming for our jobs. From autonomous vehicles to AI data management, almost any role of an organization could be replaceable by technology. And with the current Coronavirus pandemic, layoffs are becoming even more unavoidable.

A Different Approach

Twentieth-century layoffs included outplacement services such as resume assistance, interview preparation and job search coaching. The process assumed workers would be looking for another position similar to the one that was eliminated.  

But a recent Wall Street Journal article by Lauren Weber suggests that companies might take a different approach in the future. “In our digital age, layoffs are a certainty, like death and taxes,” she writes. “But unemployment might not automatically follow if employers, educators, workers and policy makers can train people whose jobs are eliminated for new careers in expanding occupations.” 

outskilling layoff alternative

What Companies Are Doing Today

Amazon is leading the way in the idea of “outskilling.” Outskilling means retraining workers for new occupations that might not be related to the work they currently do for the company. Amazon’s giant distribution centers pair humans with sophisticated robots and material moving automation. It makes sense that the number of humans needed will shrink as technology becomes better at thinking, troubleshooting, and performing tasks that require dexterity.  

For years, Amazon has offered training classes onsite. They offer workers a chance to earn certifications that may take them out of the company. In 2019, Amazon announced it would allow workers from all over the company to train for tech jobs through its Machine Learning University. Furthermore, it taught software development skills through its Amazon Technical Academy. Employees can also participate in apprenticeships and get Amazon Web Services cloud certification at a discount. The company also gives employees $10,000 and three months’ pay to set up their own delivery firm to help fulfill its one-day shipping promise. And in 2020, Amazon has committed to hiring 100,000 additional workers and increasing pay for delivery and warehouse personnel in response to the unprecedented Coronavirus pandemic.

Some workforce experts predict this model will spread to other industries. A company planning layoffs would connect with education partners. Local recruiters from other industries would agree to take on newly-trained applicants.  The affected workers would get a choice of several weeks-long training programs based on employer needs. Plus, they would be allowed to spend a few hours of the workweek in training.  

Outskilling for the Future

We’re rapidly approaching a time when this kind of program will be essential. By 2030, up to 30% of all work activities globally could be automated using current technologies, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Some 16 million to 54 million U.S. workers will need to switch occupations in that time.” 

Outskilling is a humane and smart response to unavoidable layoffs. Weber writes: “Layoffs are morale-killers and make employers look heartless; companies are loath to take on the reputation risk. Federal and state governments have an interest in minimizing claims for unemployment insurance. They want to avoid the domino effects of laid-off workers cutting their spending, losing their homes, moving away or worse.”  

Skilled coaches could use assessments, wage and job growth data to help workers find new jobs.  The ideal system requires a dramatic change in how companies treat job cuts. They’ll have to be transparent, open, and collaborative. It’s the only way to get rid of the secretive and toxic conditions that have characterized layoffs up to now. Above all, outskilling presents a huge opportunity for companies to demonstrate good faith and thought leadership in uncertain times.  

Would your leadership team consider outskilling? Can they afford not to? 


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