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How To Continually Develop Your Workforce Through Upskilling Your Employees

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Keshila Shannon

With record-low unemployment and an increased need for specific job skills, your company may be struggling to find and hire the people you need. But even as you pump up your recruiting efforts, you may overlook an obvious source for talent: your own workforce. Although some people may not have all of the requirements for particular jobs, you can develop those capabilities through upskilling your employees. 

The skills gap crisis

When most people talk about the talent gap–that divide that exists between skills needed for the job and the ones candidates possess–they’re referring to the shortage of technical skills.

That makes sense. As companies integrate digital technology, employees, even those who are not in high tech companies, must become more technically savvy. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), jobs in data analysis, science, engineering, and medicine are the areas most lacking candidates.

But surprisingly, it’s not only technical jobs that have a talent gap. SHRM says jobs in trades, including carpentry, plumbing, welding, and machining also lack skilled candidates.

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The financial cost of the skills gap

The skills gap isn’t just caused by a supply of talent that can’t keep up with increased demand. It’s also caused by the loss of employees in certain professions. In the medical field, for example, nearly half of registered nurses will reach retirement age by 2020, resulting in a nursing shortage in the next three years. 

Companies across the board are feeling the squeeze from the lack of employees with the right qualifications, with 83 percent of talent development professionals surveyed by the Association of Talent Development (ATD) saying their companies have a skills gap and 78 percent of the professionals saying they expect that gap to continue in the future.

ATD says that 75 percent of organizations say the gap already affects their service delivery, customers, or anticipated growth. The financial cost of the skills gap will be enormous, costing the U.S. economy $2.5 trillion in the next ten years.

More “power skills” needed

Another twist in the search for talent: even when employees have technical skills, changing dynamics in the workforce demand additional skills. Commonly called “soft skills,” consultant Josh Bersin suggests that capabilities employees must-have for the future, such as flexibility, time management, communication, and collaboration are not soft, but are “power skills.”

“These skills are not ‘soft’ – they’re highly complex, take years to learn, and are always changing in their scope,” he says. “We as business, HR, and L&D professionals have to stop calling these ‘soft skills’ and start thinking of them as ‘power skills.’ They are the most important skills we have in our companies, and we have to build them, nourish them, and continuously evolve them with vigor,” says Bersin.

The lack of these power skills prevents even technically proficient candidates from being hired. In one report, 67 percent of HR leaders said they hadn’t offered a technology job to a candidate lacking those behavioral skills. And the outlook for the future isn’t positive: many new graduates don’t have the necessary level of these skills either. 

Upskilling: an answer to the skills deficit

If companies can’t hire enough people with the necessary technical or behavioral skills, upskilling your employees can provide a long-term solution. Upskilling adds to an employee’s skills by training them in a new area by adding capabilities or replacing outdated ones. As companies increasingly automate jobs, upskilling is a win-win for both employer and employee.

Earlier this year, for example, Amazon announced an initiative to spend $700 million to train 100,000 employees in the next six years. This training will include moving non-technical employees to software engineer roles, helping employees with technical expertise gain skills in machine learning, and giving out apprenticeships to other non-technical employees.

In addition to enabling companies to “grow” the skills they need, upskilling your employees helps lead to deeper fulfillment. The majority (84 percent) of employees recognize a skills gap exists—and they want to learn and develop. Providing new skills retains employees, boosts morale and engagement, increases productivity, and improves customer relations.

Four tips for successful upskilling

1. Determine what skills your organization will need and compare that to the ones you currently have. Predictive analytics can help highlight what essential capabilities will be needed in the future.

Next, assess your employees’ skills to create a big picture of your current situation. This initial needs assessment might be formal, but it is critical to talk with employees to get their input on what areas they want to develop. Since their needs and interests will evolve, this assessment should also continue as a natural, ongoing conversation during manager-employee 1-on-1s. 

2. Create a comprehensive plan of how upskilling will take place. Be sure to dedicate a budget to the process. Keep in mind that the plan is just the start—upskilling your employees will be a continuous process as technologies change. 

3. Consider a variety of options for upskilling. Employees learn differently, so using varied types of training can be useful. Depending on your company’s budget, some strategies may be more immediately doable. Learning options include using internal and external experts to provide training, mentoring programs, lunchtime learnings, courses, and seminars.

4. Make learning accessible. Research tells us that our brains learn best when the information is provided in bite-sized pieces, when it is given to us as we need it, and when it is personalized. Microlearning increases comprehension, retention, and engagement, and is often less expensive than other types of training.

If upskilling sounds like a lot of effort, you’re right, it is. Perhaps that is why only 10 percent of firms have started upskilling employees. But as big a task as upskilling may be to implement, the cost of not doing so is high. By 2022, Manpower Group says that over half (54 percent) of employees will require significant reskilling and upskilling. Hopefully, the risk that in two years, half of the workforce will fall behind will trigger more companies to act.

Leaders should keep in mind that jobs will continue to change rapidly. Upskilling your employees will be an ongoing necessity to be used at multiple points in an employee’s career. Instead of an add-on or one time “catch up” activity, upskilling will be an integral part of a culture of learning that enables organizations to stay competitive and relevant in the future. 

Keshila Shannon is the VP of Marketing at 15Five, continuous performance management software that includes weekly check-ins, objectives (OKR) tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and 360 reviews. Keshila is hyper-focused on identifying strategies, research, and creating meaningful content to support people in the workforce to become better peers, managers, and leaders. 

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash