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Kelly Palmer


Chief Learning Officer

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Seven steps for upskilling your workforce to meet tomorrow’s business needs

Practical advice on creating a people-focused upskilling programme.

You can’t predict the future – but you can make some pretty accurate forecasts about the workplace, and about the critical new skills your organisation will need in the next one to three years.

To meet the business needs of tomorrow and beyond, talent professionals need to continually upskill their people. 

It’s no surprise that the future of work has been a big topic among learning leaders, especially as our workplaces have undergone seismic changes over the past few months. Keeping people's skills in sync with remote work and new business needs is the biggest talent challenge of our time. Add in the rapid development of new technologies and changing market forces, and you might be in need of not just advanced skills, but entirely new skills within your company.

Buy, borrow, build

When it comes to filling in skill gaps, people and business leaders have three options: buy, borrow, or build the talent. 

  • Buying talent means hiring externally to fill skill gaps. This is often seen as the quickest fix, but only about a third of companies report they monitor whether their hiring practices actually lead to good employees. Furthermore, recent research estimates that it costs on average about £3470 to hire a new employee – a lot of money to gamble on a questionable new hire, especially given tightening budgets.
  • Borrowing talent means offering opportunities for cross-collaboration within the company, such as stretch assignments or internal gigs. One example of this was seen when Virgin Atlantic and EasyJet cabin crew were redeployed as healthcare assistants. It’s a good strategy to help engage employees and turn around projects quickly and cost-effectively, but depending on the situation, it’s not guaranteed to be scalable or a long term solution. This also requires a certain level of transparency into the skills and abilities of your workforce. 
  • Building talent means continuously upskilling your workers to meet changes in the business, market, and technology. This requires not only a means to educate your workforce and boost job performance, but also to track these efforts in a way that can fill skill gaps, quantify improvements, and complement business strategy. 

Continuous upskilling needed

To meet the business needs of tomorrow and beyond, talent professionals need to continually upskill their people. They need to do this in collaborative ways that focus on both the employees’ needs as well as the needs of the organisation.

That means investing in all types of learning, identifying and filling skill gaps, and keeping people employable. Despite this, only 22% of HR and C-suite leaders surveyed across 17 markets said they provided training or skill-building to meet business needs, even though 91% believed it was their company’s responsibility. In that same study, nearly a third (30%) said they intended to offer skill-building opportunities but weren’t sure how.

CEOs who have advanced upskilling plans said in a 2020 report that those strategies help build a stronger company culture, increase employee engagement, boost innovation, accelerate digital transformation, and improve their ability to attract and retain talent.

It’s not enough to just talk about upskilling people. Now is the time to understand exactly how to put an advanced, people-focused upskilling strategy in place now. Today’s challenges need action, not words. 

Seven steps to advanced upskilling

So, with this in mind, how can you get upskilling right? I believe that implementing an advanced upskilling programme that fits your organisation boils down to seven steps.

  1. Identify future skills: 53% of respondents to a recent survey said that the inability to identify needed skills was the number one impediment to workforce transformation. It’s important you’re able to identify critical capabilities your workers will need in the next one to three years based on business objectives. This timeframe is key, any more and you risk becoming overwhelmed – plus, nobody can accurately predict the skills we’ll need at the end of the decade. 
  2. Assess skills: many talent leaders skip over this step, but gathering a baseline for current skills is extremely important and allows you to measure progress in meaningful ways. Whether you have tools in place to gather this data or not, our guide highlights a few different options for gathering this information. 
  3. Set upskilling goals: clear, attainable goals will help you guide your upskilling efforts. Competency models often become unwieldy because they highlight 15 or 16 skills on which to focus at one time. Narrow your focus to leverage a bigger impact. 
  4. Map learning to skills: how does your workforce actually attain these skills? Research shows that workers learn in a multitude of ways and they often want a bit of guidance on where and how to focus their efforts. Offer these opportunities through every channel for maximum results – online, team-based, peer-to-peer, informal, and on-the-job learning.
  5. Measure skills progress: create an effective dashboard to continually track progress. This is an iterative process that will likely take some adjustments, changes, and upkeep. Your skills data will help guide your efforts in the right direction.
  6. Match skills to opportunities: this lets you connect employees with new projects, stretch assignments, or even jobs through a dynamic career marketplace. This is a key step to unlocking a sustained system of internal mobility at your organisation. 
  7. Communicate metrics of success: report positive results that are particularly relevant to your business priorities and important to senior leaders. Completion rates are important, but try tracking employee engagement, retention, job performance, and other data patterns to demonstrate the impact of upskilling efforts. 

This is the same framework I’ve been using to upskill Degreed’s own employees, in preparation for the product launches and new capabilities we’ve got planned for later in the year, so it’s tried-and-tested. 

Preparing for tomorrow

Upskilling doesn’t have to be complicated. Like anything worthwhile, it will take some initial legwork and effort but this will pay off in the long-term. You’ll get a more agile, responsive and skilled workforce, who have the right skills for their jobs today and tomorrow. 

Interested in this topic? Read Leading with learning: putting L&D at the heart of your business strategy.

Author Profile Picture
Kelly Palmer

Chief Learning Officer

Read more from Kelly Palmer

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