HR Tech Number of the Day: barriers to upskilling

24: Number of years it would take to fully upskill an employee based on the amount of time employees are devoting to upskilling every week, which is just 24 minutes

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According to the World Economic Forum, 50% of the global workforce is going to need to upskill or reskill in the coming years in order to embrace new responsibilities stemming from an influx of automation. However, if the current pace of upskilling continues, it would take more than two decades for today’s employees to truly be prepared.

In a session at Spring HR Tech earlier this month, Taylor Blake, co-founder and chief product officer of upskilling platform Learn In, shared statistics on the true upskilling problem facing employers: Workers currently devote just 24 minutes to upskilling or reskilling activities each week; to fully embrace the new skills they’ll need as automation reshapes jobs, they should be spending 480 hours per year on the task. That means that, at the current rate, it would take 24 years for today’s employees to be up to speed.

What it means to HR leaders

Upskilling is clearly becoming a “business imperative,” Blake says. However, at the same time, the structures surrounding upskilling are inherently biased.

Apart from the time commitment–which can disenfranchise parents and other caretakers–many employees aren’t able to take advantage of formal education programs like tuition assistance offered by employers because of cost; the average degree-completion program still costs employees $24,000.

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Some employers also intentionally leave out large swaths of their workforce from their upskilling strategies. Blake offered a client example: In a company of 100,000 employees, one employer’s upskilling strategy involved selecting the top 30 high-potential employees for a development program; the remaining 99,070 employees got virtually no development.

“It’s common for a company to be focused on developing a small percentage of high-potentials, and the rest of the organization is simply a ‘check-the-box’ ” exercise, he says.

Other upskilling challenges include a lack of alignment–47% of employees don’t see a viable career path inside of their current employer, according to Learn In–and lack of support, as participation in a robust upskilling program may require at-home internet connection, a strong network of connections in the field or even considerations for people with learning disabilities.

COVID-19 has accelerated and exacerbated the challenges employees face in accessing upskilling and reskilling, Blake adds. Nearly one-quarter of employees are anticipating job changes because of the pandemic, and 43% said it’s provided a wake-up call that they need to develop new skills. One in four women is currently considering leaving the workplace or downshifting their careers, while people of color are 2.2 times more likely than white colleagues to cite concerns over upskilling.

Today’s upskilling models aren’t adequately addressing these gaps, Blake says. For instance, many employers turn to microlearning, which is good for helping employees get quick and easy information but lacks the comprehensiveness that it takes to develop entirely new skill sets. On the other end of the spectrum are tuition assistance programs, which are often too time-consuming. A middle ground, he says, is a multi-faceted skills-building program that embeds practice, application and feedback. “It’s not just consuming content; it’s real, hands-on skills development,” he says.

While such programs are likely to take some time–and some money–the investment is both worth it and sorely needed, he says.

“We have to face up to this tough reality: The policies, resources and tools offered to employees today don’t build the necessary skills that uplevel employees,” Blake says. “To set up our employees for long-term success, we have to ask whether we can upskill more inclusively and do it at scale.”

Watch the full session here. Registration is open through April 16.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].