“It is what we know already that often prevents us from learning” (Claude Bernard).

The skills gap has been a threat to organizations for several years. It started the moment someone coined the term “millennial” and realized this group would enter the workforce as the boomers left. Still, we continued to do what we have always done, because it was working.

Twenty years later, the future does not look bright. There are more jobs than there are people to fill them. The people who are left may not have the required knowledge to fill the open jobs. The data varies by industry, but it looks like there will be somewhere between 10 and 25 million unfilled jobs by 2020.

As a learning and development (L&D) professional, my first question is, “Why?” If there are so many millennials, and popular opinion tells us that millennials are good at technology, why will we have such a wide skills gap? According to almost every research study, the educational system has failed to keep up with the technology of the future. Technology is moving faster than education, and we are teaching theory instead of providing practice.

This is where L&D can step in and help. Most workplace challenges could be solved by upskilling, and we know how to upskill. The problem is that doing it is a double-edged sword. If the people fail, we take the fall. We can talk about how the problem is not training but reinforcement and application as well as poor leaders who keep learning from happening. This story is old, and it is not the only problem.

According to the SHRM 2019 report “The Global Skills Shortage: Bridging the Talent Gap with Education, Training and Sourcing,” in December 2018, there were seven million jobs open jobs but only 6.3 million people looking for work. Eighty-three percent of survey respondents said they had trouble finding suitable candidates in the last 12 months for a multitude of reasons, but two stand out: experience and technical skills. The problem is that they may not be what organizations actually need.

In 2016, Sunnie Giles, president of Quantum Leadership Group, grouped the top global leadership competencies into five areas:

  • Demonstrating ethics and providing a sense of safety
  • Empowering others to self-organize
  • Openness to new ideas and fostering organizational learning
  • Nurturing growth
  • Fostering connection and belonging

The Center for Creative Leadership has identified five important leadership competencies for young people entering the workforce:

None of these competencies is a technical skill. It seems that we have some misalignments to correct as well as some work to do. How can you bridge the great divide? Be an influencer.

Influence business leaders to look at transferability of skills and strategic thinking. Take note of important competencies, and communicate them. When we train and develop leaders, we must discuss the importance of the leadership competencies and help leaders think differently about technical skill acquisition.

1. Align HR and Talent Management Strategy to Business Strategy and Then to Training

We have to speak the language of the business to gain a seat at the table. Only then can we forecast and assess the skills the organization will need. We need to work together with the human resources (HR) team and the business to create a learning strategy that supports the growth and success of the overall people investment. Training is the key, but we have to speak the language of our leaders and HR teams to be successful.

2. Create Mentoring and Coaching Programs

Peer learning, both in departments and across departmental boundaries, is imperative. Identify opportunities to create avenues for employees to learn from each other. This approach will increase engagement and make succession planning easier.

The learning goes both ways. For example, if you have great technical employees (often, but not always, millennials), have them coach up (on technology), and have senior leaders coach down (on politics). Both groups can learn a lot from each other.

3. Make a List of Ways to Improve and Sustain Learning, Engagement and Organizational Growth

Talk about your list when you are at the table. Here is mine:

  • Hire for adaptability to learning
  • Create a sustainable coaching or mentoring program.
  • Have an innovation contest, or reward people for great ideas you can put into practice.
  • Create co-authoring opportunities across departments or inside departments when there are dependencies that matter.
  • Build time into the day for learning to be a priority.
  • Determine a baseline, and track success.