We’re well into year two of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and upskilling is more important than ever. Remote employment and changing consumer demands require new ways of working. Add the influence of never-ending digital innovation to the mix, and it’s clear that people and organizations need new skills to adapt, survive and thrive in 2021 and beyond.

Indeed, six in 10 workers say the pandemic and resulting economic crisis have accelerated the need for new skills. At the same time, nearly half say their current skills are becoming obsolete. Many are likely to leave their current jobs if their employers don’t invest in their development. Yet, 46% of workers surveyed say their workplaces have reduced upskilling opportunities during the pandemic.

Simultaneously, some forward-thinking organizations, like Unilever, have doubled down on their upskilling investments. Unilever chief executive officer (CEO), Alan Jope, described his organization’s strategy, “We are stingy deployers of capital and operating expense, but there are three areas where if someone comes forward with a proposal the answer is ‘yes.’ Those three areas of spend for us are in green technology, in upskilling our people, and in IT investment and digitalization.” Likewise, The L&D Global Sentiment Survey 2021 places reskilling and upskilling at the top of learning leaders’ agendas.

2021 Focus: Skills, Not Jobs
For human resources (HR) and talent leaders, this amounts to incredible challenges and opportunities. “Regardless of whether your company is hiring or retrenching, the C-suite is counting on you for leadership,” Mike Smith, Global CEO at Randstad Sourceright, noted in the firm’s 2021 Talent Trends Report.

“At no time has workforce strategy been more critical to business outcomes than it is today, and you’ll need to elevate HR’s function further to meet and exceed expectations,” Smith wrote, challenging HR and talent leaders to think and act boldly.

Upskilling to the Rescue
Organizations can embrace upskilling and help your organization avoid a disastrous talent exodus. Upskilling aligns the skills of your people to your company’s evolving business strategy. It also boosts their productivity, as 41% of workers who lack confidence in their skills feel that tasks take longer as a result.

You can implement an advanced, effective and iterative upskilling strategy in seven steps. Whether you’re just now getting started or your upskilling efforts are well underway, you can leverage this seven-step process to gauge your current strategy and expand your efforts to create and capture even more business value.

Step 1: Identify Future Skills

What critical skills will your workers need in the coming years? Answer this question for your company, departments and business units, and individual workers.

First, consider your company’s business strategy and objectives. Identify three to five skills necessary to achieve your organization’s goals. A company that needs to improve call center service, for example, might need enhanced communication, empathy and data science skills.

Sometimes it makes sense to start at the department level, especially if you work at a large, complex organization. Your head of sales might say, “Our department really needs to focus on negotiations,” so that becomes a critical skill.

Of course, critical skills for individuals will vary. Encourage your workers to own their upskilling and support them with career conversations. Most of the time, an individual worker’s aspirations will support organizational objectives. Encourage this, and stay open-minded to people trying new things.

Step 2: Assess Skills

This is about establishing a baseline of current capabilities. It allows you to measure progress in a meaningful way and set upskilling goals. When you’re starting your assessment, focus on the three to five future skills you’ve identified as critical.

One way to establish a skills baseline is to do it manually. You can survey your people through independent assessments or 360-degree reviews. You can also pull data from your human capital management (HCM) software, applicant tracking system (ATS), learning experience platform (LXP) or similar applications. If they’re not integrated, you’ll probably be managing data with spreadsheets.

A more comprehensive and less labor-intensive way to establish your baseline is to use purpose-built technology that meets the challenge of fragmented and ever-evolving data sets. Find a platform that integrates with your HR tech, continuously collects skills data from your workforce and ensures your people’s skills are current. 

Step 3: Set Upskilling Goals

Add targets to your plan. More specifically, gather a baseline of existing skills to help determine how your organization will go about learning the future skills it needs to fill gaps. Again, take into account your organization as a whole.

Plans, like skills, will vary person to person. How many skills can people focus on simultaneously? Encourage your people to pick one or two based on their gaps. Any more than that can make learning unwieldy.

Step 4: Map Learning to Skills

You’ve set your upskilling goals. Now comes some fun — figuring out how to achieve them. This is about picking learning methods that make the most sense for your people. Remember, the most advanced upskilling strategies help people build skills through practice, feedback and reflection. Examples of learning methods include:

  • Online, self-directed. A project manager watches a once-a-month webinar series about keeping teams aligned and practices what she learns with her teams.
  • Team-based learning (virtual or in-person). A marketing team wants to streamline its processes, so it participates in a team-based Agile methodology workshop where it restructures its processes in a series of virtual learning sessions.
  • Peer-to-peer. One customer service rep finds an online forum that discusses ways to deal with difficult customers. Peers then practice, get feedback and reflect together prior to conversations with real customers.
  • On the job. A retail supervisor asks an associate to help manage shipping, sharing increasingly more instructions and responsibilities over time. This is real-time, on-the-job learning, so it’s important for the supervisor to provide feedback throughout the process.

Keep in mind that people learn best when multiple learning methods are leveraged and learning is personalized.

Step 5: Measure Skills Progress

Are your people retaining and using their new skills? Continually track progress against a series of key metrics – including a skills inventory and progression — to see how people are filling their skills gaps. You can also track:

  • Trending skills – by surveying employees on the skills they view as critical.
  • Skills by department or business unit.
  • Skills by group.
  • Skills by role.
  • Skill certifications, badges and credentials earned.

Data can come from content providers, a learning experience platform (LXP) or other upskilling solutions. 

Step 6: Match Skills to Opportunities

Help leaders recognize what talent already exists in your organization. You can do this by creating a dynamic career marketplace for internal mobility that connects your people with new projects, stretch assignments, gig work and even completely new jobs.

Let’s say a worker who’s learning data science skills sees an internal project posted that lists data science as a critical skill. The worker can apply, and continually develop their new skills. Simultaneously, the manager gets a motivated, internal candidate.

Internal mobility initiatives like this reinforce learning as well. Research shows that people forget an average of 90% of what they’ve learned within a month unless its applied.

Step 7: Communicate Metrics of Success
Demonstrate how your upskilling strategy is impacting your business priorities, and reinforce the value it delivers. To communicate your success, choose metrics important to your business leaders and stakeholders. These can include, but aren’t limited to, employee engagement, time to productivity, workforce retention, sharing and collaboration, percentage of people working on new assignments, new roles, and revenue growth.

When in Doubt, Keep it Simple

If you’re a people leader, upskilling is a great opportunity to drive positive and impactful business results. That said, upskilling doesn’t have to be complicated. Take it step by step. If you’re looking for a good place to start, talk to the head of a business unit and identify three to five critical skills people need. Gather preliminary results and feedback, and keep building from there.