It has been a few months since the first reported case of now known as the Covid-19 in November 2019. Countries around the globe are grappling to mitigate the crisis that, at the time of writing, has so far infected 1.5 million of the world’s population and killed almost 90 thousands people. The IMF has declared a global recession, likened to the Great Depression, and is expected to cause 2 trillion dollars of economic losses. In a nutshell, the pandemic is not only a global health crisis but also an economic catastrophe.

When money is scarce, one of the things that often hurts the most is investment on people development. It is a prevailing cost-cutting trend during recession as organizations tend to place their priorities on business strategies and sustainability. The Human Resource Development Fund (HRDF) recently announced that monthly levy imposed on registered employers is waived for six months, from April to September 2020, to alleviate the burdens of some 30,000 of registered employers.

Hard times do not mean that people development should come to a halt. On the contrary, the pandemic should be the driving force for the quest for new knowledge and skill sets. Recession can be the best time for skilling, upskilling and reskilling efforts to enhance capability, competitiveness, and resilience. It can also serve as the impetus for organizations to restrategize their business model and shuffle initiatives in line with the disruptive changes in the global market. For individual employees, skill development is pertinent as the grim economic outlook may result in reduced work or worst, job losses. Economic think tanks forecast increased unemployment rates across the globe. This period should be used as an opportunity to revisit their professional development and curate new talents. We are fortunate that our technology and connectivity are much better today that make learning possible and accessible. Here are several recommendations that organizations and employees can do to revitalise their skill development during this challenging time.

Moving to digital learning

The pandemic has forced schools, universities and learning institutions to shift rapidly from face-to-face learning to digital learning. Digital learning encompasses computer-based training (CBT), online learning, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and digital contents in learning management system (LMS) platforms. Digital learning provides greater accessibility, saves logistics costs, offers personalization of learning needs, minimizes workflow disruption, and provides consistent learning content. ‘Anytime and anywhere’ and ‘just-in-time’ are the essence of digital learning. Now with videos, simulation, virtual coach and gamification features, digital learning is no longer just a training method but has vast potentials to create a totally new learning experience. Not only that it appeals to younger generations, digital learning is the solution to the pandemic where people are physically distant but remain socially connected.

Despite its benefits, the take up for digital learning is still relatively low. In 2018, the computer-based training (CBT) scheme by HRDF only made up  5% of the total financial assistance granted by HRDF. The CBT scheme was created to encourage employers to purchase or develop training software and digital contents. The percentage of employees trained under the HRDF is also rather humble at around 22-25% of the workforce. This figure is only half the amount compared to similar statistics in Singapore and Australia. One of the reasons given is that employers feel that training programs (normally structured to last between 1 to 3 days) are too long to be spent away from work. This issue can potentially be overcome by the use of digital learning.

Companies should use this time to work closely with their human resource development team and engage LMS developers to develop a plan to convert suitable training programs into digital contents. HRDF should also take a more leading role in digitizing skill development. At the moment, face-to-face training remains as the top training in HRDF. Their data shows that the top training programs each year are somewhat consistent. Converting these programs into digital learning therefore has a strong economic basis.

Empowered self-initiated learners

For individual employees, the need for self-directed learning is more crucial than ever. Even before the pandemic, the rise of gig economy has redefined the views towards work, organization, and employment. These changes also shift the responsibility of learning from employer-led to learner empowerment. Individual employees should determine their own learning needs to professionally develop beyond the needs and boundary of their current employer. This view emanates from the critical HRM perspective, as opposed to strategic HRM. It recognizes that employees’ training needs are often employers’ needs that may not be in line with individual long-term development.

This period should be viewed as an opportunity to learn new skills or to enrol in formal courses. These can include gaining practical or soft-skill courses to address specific needs, such as communication and presentation skills, or courses that involve long-term development. There are many available courses offered by several platforms. For instance,, an intiative by the Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia, stores over 63 various online courses developed and delivered by local universities. It also covers some MOOCs from foreign institutions. There is also EdX that offers online classes and MOOCS from top universities on various topics like business, economics, finance, computer science, and literature. Udacity, an online learning platform created by Stanford University, provides mostly IT-related coures. Cousera follows a similar education model by partnering with leading universities. Taking these online courses give learners a chance to audit and provide them with a glimpse of what it is like to learn from top educational institutions. Some courses are even offered for free to leverage on the people being locked up at home due to governments’ orders worldwide. For additional fees, learners can participate in the course assignments for grading and certification. Many libraries and publishers also offer free access to their online collections during this period. This gives people access to millions of ebooks, magazine articles, audiobooks, and other digital contents for a specified period of time.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a story with no clear ending. This is the time where the world needs optimism the most. We need to turn this tragedy into lessons, converting its challenges into opportunities. It has shaken every aspect of our systems and has put everyone in an unfamiliar territory. As businesses and societies grapple to cope with the new realities, learning becomes fundamental and inevitable. It requires people to learn, unlearn and relearn to find alternative ways to operate. It is an unwelcome cause for organizations and individual talents to innovate and reinvent themselves. Continuous support and enduring organizational culture are pertinent as its chance of getting through this is based on people’s ability to weather the storm. For individuals, this pandemic should be treated as a ‘me’ time to magnify their skill currency and expand personal values.


Dr. Rossilah Jamil’s work concentrates on the areas of HRM/D, and management education. She is the author of books ‘Training Needs Analysis’, ‘Case Study Teaching’ and ‘Emerging Malaysia – Industrial and Organizational Challenges’, and conducts in-house trainings and consultancy projects to external clients. She is an Associate Professor and Assistant Dean (External and Global Engagement) at the Azman Hashim International Business School, UTM.