In a time marked by rapid acceleration, it’s workers who are falling behind.

We’re facing a growing skills gap. The experience and expertise that created today’s workforce haven’t prepared us for the needs of tomorrow, and the gap poses a long-term threat to productivity and competitiveness. Without swift action, an estimated 85 million jobs in the U.S. alone could be left unfilled by 2030, putting $8.5 trillion of revenue at risk, according to the 2018 Korn Ferry report “The Global Talent Crunch.”

The Causes of the Skills Gap

This data raises the question of why, with so much at stake, a skills gap even exists. Short-term thinking is one reason; though the business world is increasingly embracing the idea that purpose drives process — and realizing this concept requires a long-term commitment — there’s still a focus on boosting quarterly shareholder returns in the short term.

Another cause is the difficulty associated with building internal reskilling capabilities. Time, money and a long-term perspective are all required to make reskilling a reality. Though reskilling demands the commitment of a company’s most valuable resources, it pays off down the road. from Josh Bersin, General Assembly and Whiteboard Advisors shows that it can cost as much as six times more to hire a technical professional from outside the organization as it does to build from within.

Yet, it’s hard to break from what’s familiar, and many companies still cling to a cycle of terminating employees in obsolete roles while searching for fresh talent to meet the needs of digital disruption. This approach may offer a short-term solution, but it’s expensive and inefficient. Instead, employers should look inward and prioritize reskilling and upskilling existing employees who may be in low-return, low-tech jobs.

Guardian Life’s Solution

Across industries, we’re seeing how rapid digitization is changing workforce needs — including for insurers. Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and data analytics have become powerful tools for actuaries that enable them to more precisely estimate and price risk.

These tools, however, become obstacles rather than advantages if actuaries lack training in how they work. In response to this challenge, Guardian Life gave its actuaries the opportunity to expand their skills into the emerging world of data analytics. Partnering with General Assembly, the company created a data science curriculum and gave actuaries time away from their everyday responsibilities to focus on learning a new skill.

Let’s not forget: Disruption is not limited to populations of experts like actuaries. Technological advancements are streamlining the responsibilities of nearly all workers. Consider call center employees, for instance: While calling a help desk once meant waiting minutes or even hours for the next available representative, today’s automated systems more efficiently resolve common questions and focus person-to-person interactions on the most complex issues. In the life insurance industry, those issues often involve the loss of a loved one. A machine can’t convey genuine empathy, but it can create more time for personal attention when it’s most needed.

Guardian Life recognized this technological evolution — and the related threat of job elimination — as an opportunity for job creation. A pilot program, Code for Good, gives call center workers the ability to learn a new skill: computer coding. The objective of the program is to give employees an advantage where demand is increasing. Making this goal a reality requires a willingness to go beyond one’s comfort zone and to make a radical change in mindset — one that acknowledges that success is not automatic.

Still in its early stages, the program’s initial launch caught the attention of a small percentage of Guardian’s call center workforce. However, the employees who participated graduated from the program in August and, within days, found new roles in technology. As Guardian develops the Code for Good program, this first trial provided a clear proof of concept. It found talented workers within the company who could meet its needs. It also saved the time and money often spent searching for an outside hire who would need additional training to understand the core business.

Two Keys to Successful Reskilling

Drawing from Guardian’s experience and accomplishments, there are two key ideas that are critical to successful reskilling efforts:

1. Invest for the Long Haul

First, a company must invest in robust training for the long haul. Reskilling is not just a monetary commitment but a time commitment, too. It is most effective when an employer gives its employees time to step out of their day-to-day obligations and focus exclusively on learning.

Change won’t come overnight, and reskilling programs will likely require multiple financial reporting periods before a company sees demonstrable effects — but they are well worth the time and effort.

2. Invest in a Cultural Shift

Second, a cultural shift is necessary to make the workplace a space for lifelong learning. Reskilling won’t work if leaders suddenly demand that their employees learn new skills. Instead, executives need to offer resources and opportunities for ongoing education. People tend to be loyal to employers that invest in their future and increase their advancement potential and job satisfaction.

At the same time, the U.S. is awash with recent college graduates, saddled with student loan debt, looking for work in a pandemic-hobbled economy. These graduates may not have the skills companies need new employees to have. As we work to reskill existing employees, there is also ample opportunity to prepare our youngest workers for the future.

In a world of increasing digitization, reskilling is the clear way forward. The short-term thinking of the past has led to long-term failure and a widening skills gap. An investment in our workforce is an investment in our future — one that will better prepare us for whatever comes our way.