Skill gaps continue to widen. Exponentially changing technology, generational shifts and constantly evolving social landscapes require employees to regularly adapt and advance their skills. Organizations struggle to find the right talent and train existing talent.

The data show that all organizations and industries are impacted by the inability to upskill existing employees and find new hires with the exact skill set needed for their role. Here are a few alarming trends that leaders should be aware of:

Even though leaders recognize that skill gaps exist and 64% of learning and development (L&D) professionals say that addressing them is a priority, there’s a disconnect as many employees don’t feel their organizations are investing in their growth and development. Nearly two-thirds of employees say they aren’t satisfied with the support their organization is providing to help them skill up.

Organizations can do better.

Speaking with many L&D professionals, a significant challenge they face is identifying existing skills gaps. Unlike your car, which conveniently displays a check engine light when something is wrong, or your health monitoring watch, which warns you when your heart rate is high, people are much more complex, and it can be challenging to recognize and quantify their skills gaps.

Below are six proven strategies you can use starting today to identify skills gaps in your organization.

1. Ask

Don’t overcomplicate the problem. Sometimes, simply asking your employees about their challenges is all that’s needed. Here are three different ways you can identify opportunities for development on your team:

  • Individually: During your next one-on-one meeting with your employees, simply ask a question like: “Are there any areas you’d like to grow in?”; “Is there some training that you think would help you do your job better?” Or: “What one area of growth or development would help you most professionally?”
  • As a team: Sometimes, people will be more honest in a group setting then they might be individually, as they think their answer could reflect poorly on them. The important shift here is that your questions are “we” based. This isn’t about identifying the weakest link or calling anyone out. In your next team meeting, ask a question like: “Which part of our process do we struggle with the most?” ; “If there was one area as a team we could improve in, what would it be?” Or: “In our next team training, what do you think we should focus on?”
  • Anonymously: Every organization should conduct regular, anonymous pulse surveys to provide employees an opportunity to make their voice heard. These bi-weekly or monthly surveys should occasionally include a skill-related question. Even if your organization as a whole doesn’t use pulse surveys, you can conduct occasional surveys that include a question like: “What is an area of training you’d like to receive?”; “What performance gap do we have on our team?” Or: “What system, process, or skill would you like to learn more about?”

2. Review Performance Reviews

Performance reviews are typically done individually between a manager, employee and in some cases, a member of human resources (HR). However, they are also a valuable source of collective information for L&D leaders. Pull the performance reviews from the last six months (anonymize them if needed to protect confidentiality) and look for common trends and gaps. Identify themes like,

  • Which skills do multiple employees struggle with?
  • Which growth opportunities are multiple employees asking for?
  • Is there a specific team or department that needs extra training support?

3. Monitor Metrics

What are the important business objectives and metrics that your organization measures? As an L&D professional, you should be intimately aware of these and monitor them on a regular basis. While the metrics themselves won’t point out a specific skill gap, they will give you an area to focus on and dig deeper.

For example, if profitability takes a hit for a quarter, you can start exploring why. Perhaps you find out that it’s the result of an increase in quality defects. After additional research, you track it back to a third-shift manufacturing team. After investigating why through asking questions (see tip No. 1 above), you discover that a new machine was installed, and while the first and second-shift employees received the full training, the third shift’s training was interrupted by a COVID-19 health restriction. Now you’ve identified a specific skills gap to target, and it all started by monitoring metrics.

4. Talk to Recruiters and Hiring Managers

Often times, skill gaps don’t exist in a vacuum at an organization but they exist in the broader market. Talking to your organization’s recruiters and hiring managers can be a valuable input to identify the skill gaps that exist in your own organization.

For example, perhaps your organization has hired multiple research and development (R&D) scientists over the last year to work on your next generation of products. While doing that, finding scientist that have experience with spray coating technologies has been a struggle. This is a valuable data point that providing spray coating exposure and training to your employees may fill a needed skill gap. Perhaps the next time your organization needs an additional R&D scientist, they can look at internal candidates instead of going into the marketplace to hire talent.

5. Observe the Work Being Done

In most states, administrators in schools are required to conduct multiple observations each year on teachers. This happens when a principal walks into a classroom, quietly sits in the back and watches the teacher instruct and interact with students. They document the observations and use them as an opportunity for coaching and professional development.

Why don’t we use this same technique in non-educational environments?

What would it look like to observe your team in the flow of work? How can you periodically observe the work being done without it being disruptive? You will gain valuable insights into what skill gaps may exist on your team by watching the work actually being done.

6. Plan for the Future of Work

Don’t just react to skill gaps, proactively predict when they will occur. What does your team’s work look like in three or five years? While a lot will change between now and then, this is a helpful exercise to complete. It will provide you a skills roadmap that you can use as a guide moving forward.

L&D professionals should be on the forefront of predicting which technologies, processes, systems, and developments their organization will encounter and the demands it will place on your employees.

Imagine a future where employees are highly engaged because they feel supported in their growth and development, where teams are high performing even in a constantly changing world, and training initiatives aren’t reactive to fix problems, but proactive to address the challenges of tomorrow. This is the power L&D professionals have. This is the reality you can achieve through proactively identifying and addressing the skill gaps in your organization.