Aishwarya Ramesh
Marketing

As kids learn to code, adults take to upskilling in a post-COVID world...

What courses are popular? Who is opting for them? What marketing challenges has 2020 thrown up? We explore…

During the COVID-induced lockdown of 2020, some people chose to make hay while the sun shone, figuratively. Others had more time on their hands while working from home, and chose to pursue degrees and diplomas from online platforms. Degrees like data science, or business communication. The trend of upskilling does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

The motivations to pursue an exercise in professional upskilling are understandable. The pandemic resulted in layoffs and salary cuts. Employees everywhere began feeling paranoid about their careers. They wanted to find a way to gain advantage over others, despite the sense of despair that gripped the world.

Google Trends reveals that there has been a steady increase in interest for search terms like ‘online courses’ and upskilling. Even though India is currently in Stage 5 of ‘Unlock’, the trend of upskilling continues.

Interest over time for upskilling
Interest over time for upskilling

We (afaqs!) spoke to three different upskilling platforms in India, upGrad, Simplilearn and Great Learning, about this trend. These players offer people the options to upskill themselves across various fields. All three platforms revealed that they have seen a consistent increase in traffic since the lockdown began.

Hari Krishnan Nair, co-founder, Great Learning, says that ever since the lockdown began, the platform has educated more than six lakh people across various avenues and skill sets. The interesting part is that the learners are a mix of working professionals and newly graduated students.

“We always had working professionals sign up to take courses on the platform, even pre-pandemic, because the courses that had university affiliations were priced at a premium. What we noticed is that since the start of the lockdown, we also started attracting a younger audience – namely students. They were either in the third or fourth year of their education, or those who have recently graduated.”

Hari Krishnan Nair
Hari Krishnan Nair

Nair adds that another trend is that people across the spectrum are coming in to learn digital skills that will make them more relevant to the current job market. “The lockdown has ended and offices are opening up, but we continue to see a robust growth in the number of people who want to upskill themselves.”

“In the beginning of the lockdown, people were doing multiple courses at one go, or finishing their courses much faster. Now, they continue to learn, but they’re still taking a little more time.”

Nair notes that the most noticeable difference between lockdown and ‘Unlock’ is that it has changed the speed with which people complete courses. “In the beginning of the lockdown, people were doing multiple courses at one go, or finishing their courses much faster. Now, they continue to learn, but they’re still taking a little more time.”

Before COVID hit, Great Learning housed blended learning programs – a mix of online and weekend classroom sessions. “We had learning centres, where we conducted classes and they had to shut down because of COVID. The trend of online learning will continue.”

The interviews revealed that courses like data science, marketing, artificial intelligence (AI) and communication were among the most popular ones on the three platforms for various reasons.

Arjun Mohan, upGrad’s India CEO, reveals that the people are spending a lot more time on the digital medium. As a result, a lot of digital work that the companies do, is getting outsourced to India.

"Data science, as a concept, is gaining popularity. Earlier, there may have been one data scientist per company. But now, companies may have a whole department of data scientists."

“With so many of our daily needs going online, the data, which is generated and accessible to most companies today, has gone up exponentially. Hence, data science, as a concept, is gaining popularity. Earlier, there may have been one data scientist per company. But now, companies may have a whole department of data scientists.”

Arjun Mohan
Arjun Mohan

“Data science and analytics are a necessary skillset for anybody who is in a decision-making position in an organisation. It's like, every company wants to move towards data-driven decision-making. Hence, it has become a more relevant skill to possess.”

Mohan mentions that his company also saw a lot of surge in both analytics as well as data science products. On the tech side, the technologies are becoming more and more complex because of the humongous amount of data seen in this whole lockdown.

Soft skills like communication, especially business communication, are in demand too. “It may be because everyone is working remotely. The need to talk and be a good communicator to get your work done is a lot higher. The companies are specifically asking for people to have good business communication skills for any job today.”

Mohan says that there was a huge surge in traffic for learning during lockdown in 2020. “It wasn’t just for adults or working professionals… A lot of fence sitters (who otherwise wouldn’t have tried online learning) tried it for the first time. We saw a 2x uptick in revenue in the year, but that was much lesser than the traffic we received.”

“People were worried about what would happen to their jobs. It became apparent that without upskilling or specialisation, survival will be difficult in certain sectors.”

He adds that though people had more time and liquidity to invest in courses, there may have been fence sitters who were unsure of what was going to happen a few months down the line. “People were worried about what would happen to their jobs. It became apparent that without upskilling or specialisation, survival will be difficult in certain sectors.”

“This is the best time to advertise, since media is available at a low cost and there are no bids. My TG is literally sitting at home staring at their screens, so we stepped up ad spends.”

Mohan explains that upGrad took this time to increase its ad spends to bring in more users (though most people slowed ad spends during COVID). “This is the best time, since media is available at a low cost and there are no bids. So, I should be able to show my ads at a low cost.”

“My TG is literally sitting at home and staring at their screens. This is when we decided to reposition our brand and talk more about our value proposition. Rather than just doing performance marketing, we did a mix of brand and performance marketing, because we felt that this is the right time to build our brand.”

But what courses are people choosing? Great Learning’s Nair says that it is easy to branch out into a different field when you have 2-3 years of work experience, or even less.

“If someone has 10-12 years of experience in a given field, branching out can be much trickier. We see that this audience, typically looks, for ancillary skills that will yield them better opportunities in their current workplace.”

upGrad’s Mohan adds that before COVID, upskilling, as a concept, focused heavily on working professionals. But now, college students are also looking at skills that could make them potentially more employable when they graduate.

Mark Moran, chief marketing officer at Simplilearn, points out that when people are stuck at home, they’re likely to consume more online content, which is not limited to entertainment.

“If you unpack the pandemic, then in March, April and May, everyone was pretty freaked out. We helped both individual professionals as well as enterprises, who were in crisis management mode. While totally locked down, they had to make sure that their business didn't go to zero.”

Moran adds that Simplilearn saw quarter over quarter deceleration in the year, following the wave of the pandemic (the country’s lockdown, and the subsequent ‘Unlock’).

He reveals that Simplilearn’s clients are mostly those in their late 20s and 40s, and that digital marketing, a course which was earlier quite popular in the US, is now gaining a lot of popularity in India as well.

Mark Moran
Mark Moran

Among the challenges faced during the pandemic, Moran mentions that a traditional education model is more theoretical, and “that courses develop more slowly than the digital economy does.”