A roadmap for strategically upskilling staff

  • A considered, researched and customised plan is needed to upskill people for the future.
  • A comprehensive, successful plan can involve community investment and many organisations. 
  • Match employee prospects and jobs with the skills that enterprises need to create and engage them to help make the decisions that will affect their future.
  • Quality training that is aligned to company goals and a clear view of how the transformation is going will be important for success.

The industrialised world is facing a skills crisis. On the one hand, automation is threatening many existing jobs. On the other, there is a severe shortage of qualified talent for the new digital economy. Together, these two trends have broadened the gap between the employees of the present and the workforce of the future — hence the recent interest in upskilling. 

A strategic upskilling effort involves identifying the skills that will be most valuable in the future, the businesses that will need them, the people who need work and could plausibly gain those skills, and the training and technology-enabled learning that could help them — and then putting all these elements together.

A guide to upskilling exhibit

Opto Design/Lasse Skarbövik. ©2019 PwC. All rights reserved. Source: strategy+business

In this time of rapid technological change, every member of the workforce, from the front lines to the C-suite, needs to continually expand or augment his or her skills. Those skills are not limited to the realm of technology and include soft skills and the ability to learn and grasp new ideas. In short, upskilling and intellectual renewal need to become commonplace for any company or community that expects to thrive.

Roadmap for a strategic upskilling initiative

Below are six key action steps. They are typically conducted in the following sequence, so that each may build on those that came before.

1. Analyse the situation and define the initiative.

Every situation is unique. Begin by convening candid dialogues with key stakeholders such as senior executives, HR leaders and employee representatives. How confident are business leaders about company prospects and the potential mobility of their staff?  What types of skills are needed — purely technical skills, skills broadly oriented toward digital acumen, or soft skills such as team leadership and effective communication?

Set quantitative objectives — for example, increasing the retention rate by 70 percent in the company. Indicate the desired return. Also set non-numeric objectives, which articulate the positive future state and thus motivate people. These could include past or prospective case studies describing how the initiative makes job automation less risky, how it helps fill jobs that have been chronically vacant, and how it increases community spirit.

2. Design a skills plan.

Many past reskilling efforts provided inadequate training and aimed it at the wrong population. Take a more focused approach. Base your priorities on the types of jobs that will be affected most by new technologies and the employees who are most at risk. Work to understand which individuals will be affected by job changes, or roles disappearing.

Analytic workforce planning tools can help you estimate the impact of new technologies on your company, the savings that automation will generate, the types of new skills that will be needed, and the number of months or years that it will take for these changes to happen. Design each course to focus closely on these strategic goals; you want your internally trained people to become as competent as those you might hire from outside, and to do so as quickly as possible, given the increasingly rapid pace of technological change. 

The HR function should lead the way in implementing this step in the strategic upskilling initiative. In addition to managing the training and skill development process, this group can make sure that diversity is honored in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, and mix of professional and working backgrounds.

3. Assess and advise individual employees.

Some form of individual transformation will take place for participants, sometimes taking them out of their comfort zones. A considered assessment program that includes personal coaching and advice can assuage employees’ fears and help them move to a better position in the end. Quantify the skills of prospective employees, measure their career achievement, and ask about their personal and professional aspirations.

For each participant, create an individual skills development plan, defining the steps and training necessary to address the new job requirements or even make broader changes. Ideally, individual workers should feel they are in charge of their own process

4. Match jobs and engage workers.

It’s rare to find the perfect match right away; make use of IT systems that quantify the skills gap between the candidate and job requirements. Consider using artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to broaden and deepen the talent pool — for instance, by identifying potential candidates for difficult-to-fill positions who would never otherwise think to join an upskilling initiative.

Employee engagement goes beyond individual coaching. There should be positive communication with supervisors, transparency about the project and its implications for employees, encouragement to ask for help when needed, strong support for the workers’ upskilling decisions, and standardised rules for all personnel advisors. Individual, independent personal career advice helps employees focus on their new direction and reassures them that it will work out.

5. Select training and providers.

The quality, value, and efficiency of the training experience affects every aspect of the strategic upskilling initiative, from its costs (which rise dramatically if employees can’t meet their new job requirements) to employee outlook and motivation. The quality of curricula is particularly important when the training involves advanced technologies such as robotic process automation, artificial intelligence, smart warehouses, or digital fabrication.

When recruiting training providers, be explicit in communicating the purpose and objectives of the upskilling initiative, including the particular skills that will need to be developed. In selecting professional programs, your key criteria are market recognition, track record, and the trust built in the past through placing graduates in new jobs.

6. Administer the project and monitor results.

Upskilling is challenging for everyone involved, especially employees. Bring together the HR departments of relevant companies as administrators, and use digital HR tools to keep track of activity and results. Without a comprehensive IT system, it is almost impossible to follow hundreds of workers in a variety of companies and locations.

Set up opportunities for workers to communicate with one another via support groups, informal meetings, and online platforms. Workers will want to compare notes, for instance, on how they motivate themselves during the long program, how they catch up with classwork after an absence, and how they can show solidarity for a fellow trainee who has family or health issues.

Throughout the initiative, be very careful with personal data. Strategic upskilling initiatives collect sensitive information related to people’s capacity for learning, motivation, health and family issues, and willingness to continue to work with the current employer. Limit who has access to what information for what period of time. Every company must credibly guarantee to workers that their personal data is safe. Use encryption and other privacy-oriented technology to keep this promise.

Upskilling and prosperity

If this approach to upskilling seems exceptionally complex, that’s because it is addressing an exceptionally complex problem. But all the elements for success exist. The challenge is putting them together. There is still a tendency in many circles to underestimate the capacity of human beings to master the digital skills they need; with the right tools and practices, however, it has been shown that people can meet this challenge. When enterprise leaders recognise this, and take advantage of community-based and technological innovations, they can create a model for prosperity that should last the rest of the 21st century.

This is a condensed version of an article published on strategy+business. Visit the original, ‘A strategist’s guide to upskilling’ for a broader look at upskilling in society.