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In HR, we’ve been talking about the skills gap for over a decade. And as a result, companies are putting it on their priority list, adopting more modern and technology-based learning programs and resources to help prepare employees with the skills of the future. And yet, despite these improvements, skills gaps have remained a top concern.

What is it about reskilling or new-skilling initiatives that are difficult to help close skills gaps? It’s a question our team at the Cornerstone People Research Lab (CPRL) set out to answer early this year with a global research effort. While the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in the spring of 2020, CPRL surveyed 1,000 employees and 500 C-level executives and HR managers from around the world about their views on skills development in the modern workplace. 

The findings, released this month, found that while investments in L&D are helpful, they alone are not enough. Titled “A License to Skill: Embracing the Reskilling Revolution,” the research uncovered that although employers and employees worldwide recognize the importance of skills development, there is a confidence gap between employers and employees.While employers feel optimistic about their ability to keep up with the rapidly changing skills economy, employees are uncertain.

So how can companies overcome this confidence gap on their way to building a more dynamic, resilient workforce? I caught up with Mike Bollinger, the Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Cornerstone and current manager of the CPRL, to discuss the findings of this global report, its implications and how companies can ensure success in reskilling the workforce.

Let’s dive right in: Our research shows that while 90% of business leaders feel confident they have the resources and ability to develop employees’ skills for the future, only 60% of employees share that confidence. What’s more, nearly 40% of employees feel they are not enabled by the learning resources provided at their companies. Can you explain this disconnect? 

Mike: Our research shows, over the last five years, a continuously increasing investment in L&D—and that includes L&D techniques, technology, processes and content. Leaders feel, ‘absolutely, I'm making that investment across the board.’ Presence has gone up from an employer perspective—and as a result they feel more confident in how they are enabling skill development. 

But the employees are saying, ‘that's true, but I'm not sure they are providing the right kind of resources.’ Or, ‘I’m not sure I have the time or the wherewithal to take advantage of it.’ Both parties are feeling the pressure of these changes, but our research shows employees are particularly uneasy. Not only are they worried about whether they will be able to update their skills fast enough to keep up with the world around them, but they aren’t really sure what new skills they have to learn. Most learning initiatives consider topic when surfacing content to a learner but skill is also a critical element for learning exploration.

And based on Cornerstone’s research, employers might actually be missing the mark when it comes to identifying the right new-skilling opportunities. CPRL published a report in tandem with this one that found employers’ L&D initiatives aren’t enough to prepare employees with new skills. Why is that the case—what are companies missing?

Mike: The HCI New Skilling report found that when L&D leaders are determining which new skills their workforce needs for the future, they often look inward. They examine their company’s business strategy, or talk to their employees and leaders to find skills gaps. 

However, in addition to examining internal needs, companies need to pay attention to external forces. Our research found that employers don’t look closely enough at what their competitors are doing, or how their industry or technology is changing. A successful new skilling approach requires that L&D leaders look beyond their four walls—or, in this case, their four virtual walls—to make sure that their internal efforts align with larger, external changes. 

Another thing that is hard is considering skill adjacencies. Meaning, we understand skill progress along a line, junior analyst, analyst, senior analyst. But how do we help the business and individuals understand where there is strong overlap of their current skill set with other roles. HR departments often build tracks into or out of specific roles, but rarely is this happening at scale. To address the skills gap, we really have to consider where skills transfer into other areas and offer employees a wider array of options to help them feel confident in their trajectory.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on employers and employees alike—accelerating digitization efforts. Where before the pandemic, 50% of companies prioritized digital transformation initiatives—post-pandemic, that number has jumped to 80%. Based on the research, has COVID-19 had a positive or negative effect on companies’ new-skilling efforts by extension?

Mike: The effects of COVID-19 on the workplace aren’t necessarily good or bad—they’re just disruptive. We’ve entered a new, virtual world of work that requires different types of skills and it’s an opportunity for employees to adopt them. Some people are using low-code technologies— like collaboration platforms, digital toolsets and video conferencing tools—for the first time and have developed new technical skills as a result. Soft skills have had to change as well. We’re learning how to effectively communicate with others virtually, since in-person interactions aren’t an option. 

This is an opportunity for employees, but in order to fully take advantage of it, they need to be able to set aside time to identify and explore new skills. This will not only encourage them to adopt a self-directed approach to learning, but it gives them the chance to benefit from the investments employers are making in them. 

For employers in this rapid digital transformation, many looked internally to see who they had in the workforce to contribute to or lead these initiatives. What some found is their “inventory” of skills required some work and they didn’t execute as quickly as they could have. The organizations that learned this lesson and invested in better visibility into their workforce will have stronger capability to respond to disruption in the future.

Employers can also make sure to support employees’ new-skilling efforts, too. Managers in particular are central to learning, and account for 70% of employee engagement. Encouraging managers to foster a learning environment can help employees feel like they have the time and agency to explore new learning opportunities.

But that’s only part of closing this confidence gap in the workplace. The report outlines a step-by-step plan for employers looking to improve their approach to skills development: Create a vision, develop a plan, and then implement technology. What’s important about these different steps of the process—how do they better position companies to develop their employees? 

Mike: Creating a vision is about outcome. And whenever you do any kind of strategic planning, whether it be skills planning or workforce planning, you need to look outside your own organization to some degree. 

Developing a plan is your measurement. True learning doesn't occur unless there's a behavior change. So first, figure out how to measure employees’ behavior changes. Then, get a baseline measurement so that there’s something to compare new data to later on. Track employees’ sentiment towards L&D efforts as well—this will help companies determine whether or not they are actually closing the gap. 

And, implementing technology is a process. Right now, especially in our remote world of work, e-learning is king. Modern L&D programs are going virtual, but this new mode of learning isn’t going to work for everyone. Some people are tactile learners, others are visual, and some people need to be taught with blended learning methods. Companies can’t get stuck in one way of teaching. Of course, with most companies still currently operating via remote teams, virtual methods are really the only option—but it’s a powerful option. I am confident that virtual instructors, micro-learning, and good conscious content strategies will accelerate our outcomes in the near future. However, post-COVID, employers will need to offer and invest in technologies that support different kinds of learning.   

If done well, these three steps can help companies align their L&D initiatives with their employees' needs and get better at predicting skills they will need in the future. According to one study, 48% of companies with successful skilling programs are already seeing bottom-line growth.

Based on the research, is there anything else you’d recommend companies do to become a truly future-focused skills organization? 

Mike: Look for adjacencies between skills. For example, if a company needs natural language processing skills, a future-focused skills organization finds employees with skills that are similar to language processing—like someone in the marketing department who communicates for a living. Identifying adjacencies makes new skilling efforts more effective, and reduces the learning curve. 

This report made it clear that many employees feel like they don’t have enough time to learn. But lack of time is also a red herring for other things, like uncertainty, fear or a lack of guidance. So find ways to help them along on their learning journey. Start by investing in management teams and their learning—this has a secret “multiplier effect” that yields results at faster speeds. Then, encourage managers to talk to their employees about their career goals and motivations, then adjust their learning accordingly. And by gathering a deeper understanding of employees’ individual skills, it’s easier to locate adjacencies and develop new skills with speed. That’s what it means to be agile, and that’s what a future-focused skills organization looks like. 

To download the full “A License to Skill: Embracing the Reskilling Revolution” report from Cornerstone People Research Lab, click here. In addition to the confidence gap in the global workforce, the report discusses: 

  • What skills employers and employees view as important, and what companies can learn from this variation. 

  • The credentials vs. skills debate among employers today, and how, that conversation has changed

  • How employees’ needs and expectations for their employers have been altered due to COVID-19

To download the full “The Revolution is Now: New-Skill Your Workforce to Catalyze Change” report from Cornerstone People Research Lab and HCI, click here. The full report offers additional insights on topics like: 

  • How high-performing organizations are anticipating the skills they need for the future 

  • Effective approaches for understanding workforce competencies and skills 

  • How to build an effective new-skilling framework for any organization