Business Opinion

OPINION: The Reskilling Crisis No One is Talking About

Graphic of an arrow going up stairs to represent reskilling and upskilling

I’m an engineer, not a mechanic. But as a motorcycle owner, lately, I’ve been turning to YouTube to do everything from upgrading my shifter to changing the oil. The videos have been an amazing teacher: searchable, easy to follow, helping me uplevel exactly the skills I need to fix my bike.

All of which got me thinking. If it’s that easy to learn something new, why is it so hard for some companies to figure out their learning and development programs?

The world of work was already changing, but COVID-19 brought reskilling to the forefront. Thirty-eight percent of organizations are accelerating their digitization because of the pandemic. For some legacy industries, this has led to profound growing pains. One in three midsize business leaders surveyed in June cited a lack of employee skills as their biggest challenge in responding to the business shifts necessitated by the crisis.

As the leader of an HR analytics company, I see companies wrestling with this skills gap daily. So many businesses were seemingly caught off-guard. So many more are struggling to find the best approach to quickly upskill their workforce.

But few are getting it right. In an age where any skill can be acquired on-demand, this raises a critical question: where are companies going wrong when it comes to reskilling and, more importantly, what’s the way forward?

Shortsighted thinking

The problem starts with priorities. For too long, companies let reskilling fall to the bottom of their business agenda. In fact, a 2018 report found that 44 percent of organizations didn’t provide any upskilling or reskilling opportunities at all. Despite the fact that learning and development require long-term investment and planning, it’s been consistently approached with Band-Aid solutions, if not ignored altogether.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the need to upgrade digital skills, the writing has been on the wall for some time. In 2017, McKinsey estimated that automation and artificial intelligence would force as many as 375 million workers to switch occupations or pick up new skills by 2030. Despite the forewarnings, nearly one in three workers today have few to no digital skills, even though up to 43 percent of those workers have jobs that require computer use.

For a long time, however, leaders could ignore it. In the absence of real urgency and competitive pressure, legacy industries — from retail and resources to law and education — let inefficient practices linger on rather than prioritize reskilling. In 2018, only 19 percent of in-house legal teams could support enterprise digital efforts.

COVID-19, of course, has changed everything. Many companies who had put off up-leveling their workforce found themselves unable to function. Historically risk-averse law firms had to adopt tech, trim costs and navigate digital security or grind to a halt. In short, the crisis finally bumped upskilling to the top of the priority list.

The delivery dilemma

But even when companies do invest in reskilling, they often take the wrong tack.

Too many organizations still approach reskilling as a formal, one-time process. This old-school equation of learning and development with advanced degrees, diplomas, and certifications reflects neither the current pace of change or the way we learn today. Yet, as late as 2019, 40 percent of an organization’s learning hours were spent in a traditional classroom setting.

For starters, learning needs to be continuous. Take an extreme example: cybersecurity. Attacks continuously evolve, so specialists can’t just re-up their skills, say, every five years. Instead, reskilling has to be an integrated part of the role. While continuous learning may have been limited to technical roles in the past, the crisis has illustrated how we’re all called on to develop new skills and aptitudes and at an accelerating pace.

Effective reskilling today is likewise bite-sized, asynchronous, and on-demand. In the internet era, this is how we learn, after all—whether it’s me and my motorcycle repairs or at-home chefs mastering recipes. In the job context, this means the employee doesn’t have to go anywhere; the learning finds them organically within a typical workday. Companies like Banco Santander, for example, have embraced learning-in-flow-of-work ecosystems to retrain branch cashiers as contact center agents. Instead of traditional learning models, workflow learning is embedded in applications like email, collaboration software, and search functionality.

By the same token, however, this learning can’t be piecemeal. Integrating a larger structure is critical. In the wake of GameStop, my kids have learned about short selling by watching YouTube videos and following Reddit threads. But I’m not about to hand them the family fortune to invest as if they were licensed financial managers! Micro-credential and micro-certification platforms are bringing precisely this rigor to on-demand learning, integrating convenience with structure. For example, platforms like Coursera or Degreed can help organizations plan employees’ career paths, see future skills gaps and ensure learning is an integrated part of workplace ecosystems.

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Fixating on skills instead of nurturing capabilities

While getting delivery methods right isn’t easy, the most common mistake I see in how businesses approach reskilling is more fundamental: Employers focus so hard on skills that they forget they’re talking about people. At its core, reskilling is about nurturing an employee’s deep aptitudes and underlying desire to learn.

Success here begins with recruitment and hiring. Rather than going with the candidate whose resume ticks all the skill boxes, you’re better off hiring for capability. What do I mean by that? Skills can be quick to pick up and equally quick to fall out of favour—just imagine the resources spent teaching typewriting before that technology went the way of the Dodo. Capabilities, on the other hand, are more elemental. We don’t get diplomas for curiosity, social and emotional intelligence, imagination, or creativity, but those qualities underlie our ability to learn, grow and adapt—the real drivers of business value. Rather than hiring for discrete skills, it’s about hiring people with a solid foundation. People who have learned how to learn.

Then it’s about having a workplace culture that enables and incentivizes learning. Clear pathways for advancement, for example, improve retention and morale. Improved human resources data and tools make it easier to project career trajectories and map them onto business needs. Opportunities for lateral movement are just as important. Empowering employees to explore adjacent skills can address internal gaps. At Visier, for example, we encourage workers to move around the company. They can try out different roles and, in some cases, they may find a better fit in another department.

Above all, learning and development need to be employee-centered. Gone are the days when the company’s objectives took priority over employee experience. A one-size-fits-all approach to training is no longer sufficient. Is the coursework boring? Is it too challenging? What do employees want to learn? Prioritizing employee experience not only supports better learning outcomes but also improves your company’s ROI.

The irony is we’ve never had more tools and technology to address learning and development. Even in a remote work context, an on-demand education is literally at our fingertips. For employers, the key to truly closing the digital skills gap lies in prioritizing reskilling and employee development as a business-critical priority. As the crisis has vividly shown, a company’s ability to adapt and thrive in a changing landscape is directly tied to the training of its team members.

About the author: Ryan Wong is an engineer turned CEO of Visier, a people analytics company.

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