How to Build the Best Upskilling Program for Your Employees
Employers are struggling to find skilled workers. The solution? Training up the ones they already have.
Skilled workers are in short supply. But leaders might be able to find the talent they need in an unlikely place: their own organizations.
Businesses are investing in upskilling programs to solve their hiring struggles. After all, the labor market remains challenging: Fifty-six percent of U.S. small businesses--and 92 percent of those hiring or trying to hire--say they're finding few or no qualified applicants for the positions they're looking to fill, according to a recent survey of business owners from the National Federation of Independent Business.
Skilled workers will only become more essential as new technologies develop: On a global scale, approximately six in 10 workers will need training before 2027, according to a survey of global companies from the World Economic Forum. But only half of workers have access to sufficient training opportunities.
That's where upskilling programs come into play--though implementing them does have some challenges. Allocating the time and resources needed to develop upskilling programs can be costly. But offering these programs could be a "distinguishing factor" for companies, says Hatim Rahman, assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "It provides an edge for organizations that are serious about providing workers with new opportunities in still a very tight labor market," he says.
Employers might also fear that once they invest in upskilling their employees, those employees will immediately leave. But Rahman doesn't buy that: "Workers are not going to leave because you give them upskilling opportunities. They're going to leave because of bad culture, bad management, compensation."
Here's how company leaders can best approach upskilling their employees:
Identify skills gaps
First, company leaders need to identify where upskilling could benefit both the employees and the bottom line by assessing skills gaps within their own organizations.
At Veracode, a software security company based in Burlington, Massachusetts, team interviews and surveys revealed that managers could do a better job at making their employees feel satisfied at work. That led the team to craft its first upskilling program--a course called "Managing for Success" that focused on leadership principles for managers--three years ago, says Alison Bayiates, chief people officer at Veracode.
It's important to designate who will be responsible for collecting this information about the company's skills gaps, says Susan Vroman, a management lecturer at Bentley University, whether that's a chief people officer, chief technology officer, or another team member. That person must investigate: "What are the trends? Where's the gap between our firm and where we need it to be?" she says.
Some skills gaps might be more obvious, such as upskilling health care employees to use an electronic medical record system, Rahman says. But don't overlook the more generally transferable skills, like critical thinking or basic artificial intelligence, he adds.
Consider the best approach for your team
Companies can offer upskilling in various ways, and the right approach will largely depend on the firm's size, skill needs, budget, and other factors. In some cases, a teamwide upskilling course may be necessary, Vroman says, but companies can also "individualize and customize the plan for every single person." The solution might even be as simple as adding an employee to a new project or footing the bill for a course on how to negotiate.
Rahman outlines three basic models to choose from: in-house, in which company leaders might develop their own curriculum or solution from scratch; hybrid, in which a company might partner with an educational platform; or outsourcing, which leaves it up to each employee how they access this upskilling, such as through a reimbursed university course.
It's important to understand that employee preferences will likely vary, Rahman adds. For instance, a single parent might be unwilling or unable to participate in upskilling programs outside of working hours. That's why Veracode chose to offer a variety of options, Bayiates says, from its in-house curriculum to courses offered through the company's outside partners, like LinkedIn Learning.
Developing or arranging this upskilling program will require an investment of time and money from the organization no matter which path leaders follow. At Veracode, it took a team of three people from human resources about a month or two to create the curriculum for its first 18-hour "Managing for Success" program, Bayiates says, and the team enlisted the help of a trainer from the consultancy Keystone Partners to bring it to fruition. Veracode has 719 employees globally.
If company leaders do choose to partner with another organization to bring an upskilling program to life, they need to "choose partners carefully," she adds, "and really do some research around who can help you."
Put new skills to use
Employers will naturally want to make sure that there's a proportional return on investment with upskilling programs. But Rahman says he has spoken with multiple workers who have been instructed to learn a new skill--say, the coding language Python--and then lost the skill because it wasn't useful in their day-to-day assignments.
So, company leaders need to communicate with the wider team to make sure that their upskilling program is and remains relevant to their work, and "incorporate it productively" into performance reviews, Rahman adds. It's not about punishing employees who don't upskill themselves, he says, but rather providing the right incentives to ensure that gaining these new skills is a priority for them.
Employers must also realize that it will take time before any results benefit their bottom line, so they should take into account the full scope of the positive outcomes, even if on an individual basis, Rahman says. The team at Veracode, for instance, uses its annual employee engagement survey and pulse surveys to measure success. Since introducing manager upskilling, the company has seen employees report consistent one-on-one meetings with their managers, improved job satisfaction, and increased productivity.
"We believe that's because our managers are doing a great job helping employees prioritize," Bayiates says, "and removing things that are blocking them from being successful."