Learning and Development

Upskill Now to Create a Future-Ready Workforce

Post-pandemic, companies must embrace a culture of continuous learning if they are to survive current and future workplace disruptions.

Upskill Now to Create a Future-Ready Workforce
Editorial Team
October 29, 2021
Upskill Now to Create a Future-Ready Workforce

Covid-19 has drastically – and permanently – changed the way we work. The pandemic has sent millions of people to work from home. It has also accelerated the digitization and automation of our workplaces, as a result of which jobs are evolving constantly and new critical skills are emerging rapidly. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, we are looking at a situation where 107 million workers might need to find new occupations by 2030 – 25% more than estimated before the pandemic. However, the global workforce simply does not have enough skilled candidates to fill these emerging roles.

In these testing times, the only way individuals, companies and industries can survive, stay relevant and be future-ready is to upskill and reskill.

Most businesses are aware of this reality. When Linkedin interviewed learning and development professionals from across the world for its 2021 Workplace Learning report, 59% of the respondents identified upskilling and reskilling as top priorities. Similarly, 58% of respondents in the 2021 McKinsey Global Survey said closing skills gaps was a high priority now. It’s no wonder that the global learning and development market today is worth more than $370 billion, with companies spending $1,300 on average annually on each employee’s learning activities. 

Wanted: Social skills

What skills are employers prioritizing to create an agile, adaptable and future-ready workforce?

As work becomes more digitized and data-driven, companies definitely want employees with at least the basic digital skills. However, multiple studies point to a significantly greater growth in the demand for social, emotional and cognitive skills rather than technical ones.

Resilience is the top skill employers are looking for, says the Linkedin survey. According to research by recruitment firm Hays, the skills that organizations need most today are the ability to adopt change, flexibility, people management and interpersonal skills. Similarly, the McKinsey survey shows that the skills companies are most interested in developing through upskilling and reskilling programs are adaptability, continuous learning, interpersonal skills, empathy, leadership and management, critical thinking and decision making. McKinsey estimates a 25% increase in the demand for social and emotional skills in the US in the next decade, up from a pre-pandemic estimate of 18%.

Check out Learning lab cohorts, our five-week programs that will help you learn the most in-demand skills.

Upskilling pays

For organizations, upskilling is hard. They’ll need to navigate multiple roadblocks such as lack of time, resistance to change and interdepartmental rows, to name a few. Why should they bother? The first reason is that upskilling is the only response to the changes sweeping our workplaces. Secondly, upskilling and reskilling have significant benefits. In the McKinsey survey, 69% of respondents said their companies had scaled up skill-building efforts after the pandemic and 71-90% reported that this has had a positive impact on employee performance and satisfaction. According to Deloitte, high learning organizations are 92% more likely to innovate, 58% more prepared to meet future skill demands, and have 37% greater employee productivity.    

Here’s why it pays to invest in learning and development:

  • People want to adapt: There is a misconception among managers that employees are averse to change. A 2018 study of workers and business leaders in 11 countries by Harvard Business School and the Boston Consulting Group’s Henderson Institute proves that the opposite is actually true. The study found that employees are aware that the workplace of the future holds opportunities (and not just challenges) for them, such as flexible work and better wages. Rather than assume that automation will make their jobs obsolete, they believe it will do away with “dirty, dangerous and dull” tasks and bring more meaningful jobs their way. The surveyed employees showed the willingness to adapt and sought the support of their employers to prepare themselves for the future.
  • People want to stay: Skill building is an investment in talent. On the other hand, lack of career development is a key driver of employee attrition. An engaged workforce is vital to employee retention. And employees feel engaged and invested in by their organizations when they are given opportunities to better themselves and progress in their careers. 
  • Strengthens organization brand: Satisfied employees do wonders for an employer’s image. “Employers who offer valuable training opportunities build their reputations as employers of choice,” says Kelly Aiken, vice president of the Washington-based non-profit National Fund for Workforce Solutions.
  • Makes financial sense: Hiring a new worker is twice as expensive as upskilling/reskilling an existing employee. Also, upskilling is proven to improve employee productivity and contribute to organizational success. An employer who invests $1,500 per employee on training sees 24% more profit on average than those who invest less, says HR Magazine.
  • Great for inclusion: Two million women left the American workforce in the past year due to competing and realigning priorities. Upskilling/reskilling them is not only the most effective way to get them back to the office, it will also help organizations improve their corporate gender balance and create a much-needed culture of inclusivity. Employers have a responsibility to make sure that their female employees come back and stay on for a long time. For this to happen, they must offer women the tools they need to reinvent themselves in an ever-changing workforce and empower them to be influencers. An upskilling program focused on women must naturally include training for people managers on how to lead diverse teams without bleeding talent, so that women won’t ever again be forced to opt out of the workforce at such an alarming rate. 

How to create a skills hub

To be better prepared for current and future workplace demands, many agile businesses are setting up a special ops team to train the troops. They call it a “skills hub” – a permanent unit within the company that is led by the head of talent and charged with creating, operating and managing the organization’s upskilling campaign. Here’s how you can create an effective skills hub of your own to upskill your employees:

Step 1 - Create a learning strategy

  • First, understand your business goals. With this in mind as well as the organizational transformations currently taking place, identify your future workforce needs.           
  • Next, conduct a thorough assessment of your employees’ skill sets. This exercise is about building a comprehensive database of the skills, experience and achievements of each employee.    
  • Now, identify the skills you require in the future and the existing skills gap that you need to address. In particular, narrow down the top skills that are vital to the company’s long-term success. 
  • Once you have identified the skills you need and the skills gap you face, assess your current training and learning programs. What do they cover? What are the methods used? How effective are they in terms of learning outcomes? Are they adequate to bridge the skills gap? (Probably not.)
  • Next up is identifying employees who need to be reskilled as their jobs transform. Also identify the jobs that are being eliminated and the employees who must be upskilled so that they can move on to new roles.    
  • Using all the information you have gathered will help you create an effective learning strategy. The skills hub can start with creating foundational learning programs for all and customized ones for a select few. Given the importance of leadership as a skill, a strong leadership training program should be part of the curriculum. It’s a good idea to get multiple perspectives as you put together your upskilling program. This can be done by including business leaders, managers, HR, talent and learning professionals in the skills hub

Step 2 - Deliver effective training

  • At this stage, you line up your training and development programs for your employees. There are many ways in which you can upskill your staff – via traditional classrooms, online courses, self-study programs and peer coaching, to name a few. What’s important to remember is that people like to learn and not be trained. As an employer, this means making it possible for your staff to be able to learn the skills they need when, where and how they prefer. For example, it might not be possible for a participant to take a week off work to join a professional enrichment course. Microlearning (where participants learn in small doses at their convenience) or coaching, or a combination of the two, might be a better fit. Beyond that, employers must also factor in whether the participating employees have an interest in learning new skills, how to get them interested if they lack conviction, and how they perceive these new skills will help them in the future.
  • Just as important as learning is knowledge retention. The best way to ensure your employees retain what they have learned is to give them an opportunity to put their training to practice and review its results.    
  • Also, remember to ask your employees for feedback on whether they found the training and development programs useful, and how much they learned from them. This will help you fine-tune your learning and development programs.             

Step 3 - Build a culture of learning

  • In a 2020 Deloitte study, more than 80% of the businesses surveyed said they had either created or were in the process of creating a corporate culture of lifelong learning. But a learning culture cannot survive without the support of those in leadership roles. How can leaders lead the change? To begin with, they must be willing to question the old ways of working and give up legacy systems that don’t meet the organization’s current and future requirements. They must approach upskilling not as a short-term scheme to attract talent in a tight market but as a long-term commitment. Upskilling is not a stunt to improve a company’s social responsibility image but a lifelong endeavor. True leaders see upskilling not as a one-off training program but as an opportunity to promote a work culture that welcomes challenges and opportunities to learn.
  • To make learning part of an organization’s culture and fabric, it is important to formalize the learning process. If peer coaching is your approach to upskilling your employees, then formalization would mean setting specific times for when peers can share tips and insights. Holding regular candidate assessments to measure learning outcomes is another way to formalize the process.     


Step 4 - Keep them engaged in other ways

You don’t want to upskill your workforce only to lose them to the competition at the first opportunity. While it is true that upskilling improves employee engagement and retention, there’s a lot more that employers can (and must) do to keep their newly skilled staff on the rolls. This includes providing them with opportunities for continuous learning and any other additional support they might need. Another way to retain talent is to promote a supportive work environment – flexible work arrangements, contracts that reflect market realities and attractive salaries, for example. All of this will naturally require a re-examination of the company’s HR policies.           

What upskilling looks like

Upskilling programs take many forms, but these are the five most common models in use:    

  • Internal training: Think Walmart Academy. Since launching this internal training program in 2016, the retail giant has been providing opportunities for store supervisors and department managers to learn skills such as merchandising and employee motivation. In the process, it has helped them move on to roles that pay more. Classes are conducted in modular classrooms located in store parking lots.       
  • Apprenticeship: Amazon’s User Experience (UX) Design and Research Apprenticeship is a year-long upskilling program that allows employees to learn UX research and design skills, such as creating easier payment processes on Amazon websites and designing features to make Alexa devices more accessible. The apprenticeship combines instructor-led training with real-world experience. Amazon says the program has also been effective in teaching participants leadership skills.  
  • Partnership with outside experts: As an outside expert, Learnit has helped many organizations upskill their workforce. We collaborated with the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SF DPH), for instance, to develop an IT apprenticeship program to train new employees who otherwise did not have the required IT qualifications. This helped the DPH attract and train talent in the hyper-competitive Bay Area, which has one of the largest concentrations of tech firms in the US. While IT skills were the primary focus of our upskilling program, we were careful not to overlook the importance of soft skills – such as collaboration and teamwork and project management – that IT department staff require to work optimally. We used a combination of in-class training, certifications and a customized mentorship and practical experience program to help the participants learn. Like the SF DPH, most organizations today are happy to entrust the upskilling of their employees to outside experts. This is because of the benefits these experts bring, including deep expertise in a specific skill/topic area, vast knowledge of time-tested and valued skills, and a fresh perspective due to their experience of working across industries and organizations. A representative for a California gas and electric company, for which Learnit developed a virtual training program focused on Microsoft business applications, had this to say about our collaboration: “Learnit is just a fantastic resource, always willing to evolve and work with us on what we are needing.” 

If you’d like to know more about Learnit’s upskilling programs, read our Case Studies here.                 

  • Partnership with universities/colleges: Universities and community colleges are increasingly taking the lead in helping businesses with their upskilling needs. They do this by offering skill-building programs, certificates and credentials. Google, AT&T and Boeing are prominent companies that have formed lasting upskilling partnerships with universities and colleges. In such a partnership, the employer pays the education provider directly for the employee’s training. This is considered a much better practice than the tuition reimbursement system, where the employee pays for the training upfront and is reimbursed by the company at a later date.              
  • Multiple career training program: Through its Associate2Tech program, Amazon helps its fulfillment center employees receive on-the-job IT training so that they can move into technical roles within the company. During the 90-day program, employees receive virtual instruction and paid study leave to prepare for the CompTIA A+ Certification test, a widely recognized entry-level computer service technician exam. Amazon offers another multiple career training program called Career Choice. It is perhaps the most unique upskilling program on offer as it helps Amazon workers pursue high-paying, high-growth careers outside the company. Through Career Choice, Amazon employees learn the skills they require to become computer support specialists, web developers, aircraft mechanics, nurses and legal assistants, to name a few. The program covers 95% of tuition and other fees for courses at accredited schools.       

Learnit playbooks are fantastic free resources for your organization’s upskilling, learning and development needs. Check them out here.