Investing in learning and development (L&D) has never been more critical or challenging, as skill requirements rapidly evolve, and employees who don’t feel as though their skills are being utilized are more likely to look for another job. To meet this demand for employee development, organizations can create a culture of learning by putting skills first.

Skills are the new workplace currency. More than 40% of employers on LinkedIn explicitly use skills data to fill their roles, and LinkedIn members added 365 million skills to their profiles over the last 12 months, a 43% increase year over year. L&D is at the forefront of this skills-first movement, said Tiffany Poeppelman, CPTM, director of career development at LinkedIn, during her keynote presentation at the fall virtual Training Industry Conference & Expo (TICE). “I believe that we are uniquely positioned in talent development and learning and development to deliver on this skills-first future that we continue to talk about as we’ve been at the forefront driving skills development for a long time,” she shared.

What Is a “Skills First” Approach?

If organizations want to stay ahead in the war for talent, they must connect a skills-first strategy to career development. So, what does that mean? According to Poeppelman, it’s putting skills at the forefront of the organization’s talent initiative and adopting a “skills over schools” approach as companies “remove degree qualifications and invite people to join their company based on their capabilities, their experiences and their skills.”

Putting skills first doesn’t replace traditional development programs, it enhances them by better matching talent with opportunity. Operating under a skills-first model narrows the skills gap by assessing the skills employees already have and identifying those they’ll need in the future.

Three main areas of focus for skills-first strategies are hiring, career development and internal mobility. Investing in skill development in these areas can improve business outcomes. “If we’re able to help support employees from getting where they are to where they want to go, we can boost retention, increase engagement of employees, reduce the time to hire and, of course, lower costs for onboarding,” Poeppelman said.

The Intersection of Skills and Career Development

When asked in a LinkedIn poll what motivates them to learn, employees’ responses were all linked to career development. The more training is tied to future career goals, the more engaged learners will be. To do this, Poeppelman suggests organizations leverage the three E’s: experience, exposure and education. “If we think about our opportunity areas for talent development and helping people get the experience, exposure and education when it comes to skills and their careers, we can start to get really creative and engage our employees,” Poeppelman said.

The 3 E’s in Practice

While these approaches are not new, focusing on experience, exposure and education can help to motivate and engage employees to develop the skills they need to advance in their career.

Here are some examples of how to put the three E’s into practice.

1. Experience

  • Job rotations: Also known as job swaps, job rotations can completely immerse employees in a different role for a period of time to learn new skills on the job. This can also be an opportunity to reallocate some resources as demands fluctuate in different areas of the organization.
  • Community service: Partnerships with nonprofits can provide powerful ways to grow unique skills like compassion and commitment.
  • Job sharing: Expanding employees’ scope by collaborating with someone to fulfill one common role.
  • Project gigs: Employees complete a small part of a project from another role to learn some of the skills affiliated with the position.

2. Exposure

  • Job shadowing: The tried-and-true method of observing and following someone in your desired role to determine the skills you’ll need to be successful in that role.
  • Observation: Learning new skills from a peer regarding a particular project or initiative.
  • Mentoring: Connecting employees with a more experienced mentor to help them gain personalized skills.
  • Informational interviews: Sitting down with someone with more expertise to ask questions and gain insight about the skills needed for a project or role.
  • Networking: Giving employees opportunities to reach out and connect with others to unlock economic potential.

3. Education

  • According to the 70-20-10 Model for Learning and Development, employees gain 10% of their job knowledge from formal education sources. In L&D, these sources include books, podcasts, online training or industry conferences, among others.

How To Drive Skills and Career Development

Organizations must develop programs to drive their employees’ skills and career development. LinkedIn has implemented a few unique offerings to engage and develop talent.

For instance, they implemented “Career Week,” a global event that gave employees a chance to invest in themselves and their career development. The event centered around in-person workshops, sessions with various speakers and asynchronous content that allowed employees to learn about others’ unique career journeys. “There was a lot of experience, exposure and education that we weaved throughout the week to help people think about their own goals, and connect with others along the way,” Poeppelman said.

LinkedIn also developed a job shadowing program called “ShadowIn,” where employees are matched with another employee to spend three months meeting with and observing. “People absolutely love it,” Poeppelman said. “It’s really helped our employees who are just trying to figure out what’s next. Or maybe they know what’s next and they just want to confirm it.”

To enable internal mobility and help employees transition into a new role, LinkedIn has curated a learning experience called “UpskillIn” that prepares employees to interview and land a new role. The program includes mentoring, learning paths, skills-based assessments and interview coaching. This program was very effective in “getting people to make a career pivot into a new domain,” Poeppelman said.

L&D in the Spotlight

L&D is integral to helping employees develop new skills and advance their careers. Learning leaders are uniquely positioned to help organizations accelerate talent development and prepare for the future of work — but learning leaders need development, too. Learning leaders need to invest in their own development to ensure they have the skills and capabilities needed to effectively deliver these programs, stressed Poeppelman.

Training professionals need to embrace and keep pace with change, rethink how they assess skills and measure impact, and create accessible, inclusive learning experiences. With the right tools, L&D can lead their organizations into the future through skills-first career development.