Now is the Time to Start Upskilling your Workforce

Ignoring the growing digital-skills gap will only hurt a company’s bottom line.
By: | April 8, 2019 • 12 min read

A high-tech client of Accenture approached the global management-consulting firm about reskilling its workforce and, within two years’ time, Accenture was able to help transform this company’s curriculum from 100 percent classroom-based learning to 75 percent digitally based. The result? Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resources officer at Accenture, says the client saw a 92 percent average increase in the number of people being trained per year.

For companies that want to remain competitive, upskilling (and/or reskilling) should be a No. 1 priority. McKinsey Global Institute predicts that, by 2030, approximately 14 percent of the workforce will have to change careers because of automation and artificial intelligence. That would leave millions of employees in the dust, with limited career options.

Antonis Christidis, a partner at Mercer, says the elimination of jobs isn’t a new phenomenon; however, the pace of digital transformation is something we’ve never experienced before. Looking back to the first Industrial Revolution, many Americans were either working in agriculture or a skilled trade and, as factories started cropping up, there was a demand for unskilled labor. Americans went from working on farms to working in factories, a relatively easy transition because the demand for unskilled labor skyrocketed.

“What’s happening now, however, is the layer of transactional jobs in the next 15 years will be eliminated—people without relevant skills won’t have an easy transition like in years past,” says Christidis. “If we don’t start upskilling/reskilling now, we run the risk of a big part of society becoming irrelevant.”

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In a McKinsey survey of approximately 300 global executives, a majority of respondents said they’ll need to retrain or replace more than a quarter of their workforce by 2023. Sixty-six percent of respondents rated reskilling/upskilling as a top-10 priority; however, only 16 percent reported feeling “very prepared” to tackle the skills-gap challenge.

Jaime Fall, director of UpSkill America, says that upskilling the current workforce is critical for retention because it’s becoming harder to attract new employees.

“As skills needs continue to shift, employers look for people who come to the company not only with the right skills, but that they’re a good culture fit,” says Fall. “But those people already exist within the organization—why not do whatever is possible, within reason, to give current employees the skills or knowledge they need to be able to move up in their careers?”

To fully prepare for the future, employers must create a culture of learning that fully supports the rise of new skills. There are countless options for doing so, but UpSkill America has identified six models of upskilling: apprenticeships, pre-employment training, high-school completion/equivalency, employee training, certifications and/or college degrees.

No matter which avenue companies pursue, Accenture’s Shook says, the time to upskill the workforce is now.

“Ultimately, to thrive—not just survive—in this time of high-velocity change, organizations and individuals need to embrace lifelong learning,” she says. “Gone are the days when you learned a skill and practiced it throughout your career. The new life script is to learn, work and repeat.”

Bridging the Divide

Accenture isn’t just talking the talk—the firm is dedicated to upskilling its own workforce, along with helping clients do the same. Shook says that, in roughly three years, the company has “new-skilled” nearly 300,000 of its 469,000 employees worldwide.

“New-skilling our people was at the heart of our massive talent transformation to ensure they remain relevant and at the forefront of both technology and industry,” she says. “To achieve this, we have an innovative learning culture, Accenture Connected Learning, which abandoned the one-size-fits-all curriculum to instead focus on learning opportunities that are highly customized for the individual and highly specialized based on our clients’ needs.”

Mike Fenlon, chief people officer at PwC, notes that upskilling has also been at the center of PwC’s business model. All employees are asked to adopt a growth mindset because the company views learning as a lifelong commitment.

In the fall of 2017, PwC launched its Digital Fitness mobile app, which tests technical knowledge, as well as behavioral skills and relationships in the organization. Once complete, employees are presented with feedback on strengths and skills gaps and are then connected to learning assets within the app, including podcasts, articles, quizzes, videos and links to training courses.

Fenlon says the app is just the entry point. From there, employees set up their own Digital Fitness plan, in which they can chart their learning journey. As they complete learning “quests,” employees are awarded with digital badges, which are real credentials that stay with them during their tenure at PwC and beyond.

There are also fast-track programs like the Digital Academy, which is an intensive one-to-two-day training course in topics like robotics and data visualization, after which employees are expected to immediately apply the new skills internally or in serving PwC’s clients. The company also offers a Digital Accelerators program, in which employees receive immersive training in any number of topics, including process automation, robotics, data visualization and AI. The Accelerators are rapidly redeployed to teams where they continue to learn and build skills over the course of 18 months. The expectation is that they’ll accelerate the development of others and the creation of technology.

“Upskilling has been at the heart of our business model because our greatest asset is our people and their expertise,” says Fenlon.

Over at IBM Corp., its global workforce of more than 380,000 has access to a whole host of learning and development programs, and the company recently embraced the era of “new-collar” workers—putting skills above degrees.

Kelli Jordan, director of career and skills at IBM, says the tech giant offers a digital-learning ecosystem called Your Learning, which has transformed the way in which employees learn. Learning is no longer a top-down activity, but something all employees are encouraged to do at their own pace. Your Learning is powered by Watson cognitive computing, which uses AI to understand the unique learning needs of every employee. With every interaction, Watson gets smarter and improves the learning recommendations for individuals.

Employees also have access to Watson Career Coach, which acts as an advisor that can offer career advice, identify lateral career moves and recommend ways to help build skills in an employee’s desired career path.

The conversation around upskilling isn’t complete without mentioning the more “conventional” route of learning: college. For instance, at Bright Horizons, a majority of employees are teachers who work in its early-childhood-education centers, yet many don’t have a college degree. Chris Duchesne, vice president of client services at EdAssist, a division of Bright Horizons, says that, while these employees may have wanted to pursue higher education, it often comes down to a choice: Pay for your primary expenses or pay for an education.

“We removed the barrier to entry and participation on the part of employees by eliminating the financial concerns,” says Duchesne about Bright Horizons’ program, which offers no-cost tuition for employees who enroll in early-childhood-education degree programs.

Since launching the program in July 2018, more than 1,000 employees have enrolled and are on their upskilling journey working toward degree completion.

Overcoming Hurdles

While AI and automation are widening the skills gap, they also hold part of the solution. Mercer’s Christidis says new jobs will arise from these advances. For instance, at one point in time, software development required quality-assurance testing but, with automation and AI, algorithms are now capable of testing code rather than humans, changing the software-developer role.

Netflix, for example, started a new domain called chaos engineering, he says. “The developers no longer had to test the code; rather, they now have to break things with a purpose to find problems. This didn’t exist five years ago, and 10 years from now it may be fully automated. This loop is about continuous adjusting and being agile enough to meet these new skill needs.”

In a recent Accenture survey of more than 1,200 executives, a majority of respondents believe intelligent technologies will create new opportunities for work in the next three to five years, and it will be important to learn new skills to work with these technologies. Unfortunately, only 3 percent said they intend to significantly increase investment in training and reskilling programs in the same timeframe.

Shook says concerns over cost are common among C-suite leaders.

“At Accenture, we actually lowered the cost of training hours by more than 25 percent since we began aggressively expanding our digital-learning channels, while increasing the number of training hours our people spend by 40 percent,” she says.

Perhaps the biggest concern cited by experts is determining which skills will be needed in the future. UpSkill America’s Fall says that, because technology and the necessary skill sets change so fast, it’s hard to know what skills will be needed in two years. The challenge, then, is what do employers do absent this knowledge?

Fall recommends employers start creating a learning culture now so that, whatever skills are needed down the road, companies are responsive and have all the processes in place to roll out a successful upskilling initiative. Another critical part of this process is getting managers on board.

“Managers can be blockers for people getting promotions,” he says. “Something that employers need to think about is, How do we ensure that managers understand the critical importance of developing the people beneath them so they can be successful in their current role?”

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Sari Wilde, managing vice president at Gartner, says she’s seen a discrepancy between the skill sets top companies are looking for and developing versus other employers.

Companies that are more successful in focusing on the right skills are “diversifying their input into skill identification,” she says.

Wilde cites a tech company that used machine learning to scrape public data sources and determine who its competitors were hiring. Some of the business leaders didn’t see a need to upskill, so this competitive analysis was necessary.

“They used this information to identify the skill sets their employees in specific roles needed to learn,” says Wilde. “By looking at what skills their top competitors were trying to source, they proactively moved beyond business leaders who initially didn’t understand the upskilling needs.”

Christidis says an upskilling initiative must be anchored in a business need. Then, experts agree, organizations should engage in a skills assessment at the task level, as certain tasks are more likely to be automated or augmented than entire jobs.

Another key component to an upskilling initiative, Wilde adds, is employee motivation—top-down communication won’t work. Instead, employers must demonstrate that this initiative is tied to personal growth—how employees will personally benefit from participating in upskilling.

To avoid overwhelming the business, start with one need at a time and pilot the initiative.

“Identify an acute business need, [and] identify a business champion who will help develop, launch, communicate and drive participation in the program,” says EdAssist’s Duchesne. “Then you can use the results as a basis to learn and create your scalable upskilling model.”

For more on reskilling, see HRE’s interview with Willis Towers Watson Managing Director Ravin Jesuthasan.

Danielle Westermann King, staff writer/digital producer for HRE, received her bachelor’s degree in English from Temple University. She has written and edited articles for various print and online healthcare publications and is now setting her sights on human resources. She can be reached at [email protected]