Reskilling: A matter of ‘survival’

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Why reskilling can be good for the job

How reskilling can be good for an industry

About two years ago, Dentsply Sirona, a global manufacturer of dental products and technology, began reskilling its workforce to better adapt to future customer needs.

The company’s CEO, Don Casey, led the internal communication effort, which included sales forums, online meetings, video broadcasts and other types of messaging that solicited employee feedback and encouraged workers to think holistically about evolving customer needs, says Lisa Yankie, senior vice president and CHRO at Dentsply Sirona, which supports 15,000 employees in 40 countries.

“The primary objective was being customer-centric [instead of product-centric],” she says, adding that the company’s customers were also surveyed about their expectations. “We helped employees understand what digitization means, what the new skills of the workforce would look like, how we need to develop them and how it would impact specific roles.”

A new position was created–clinical development manager–who participated in three face-to-face seminars and completed 20 hours of webinar training that expanded their understanding of the needs of dental practices beyond products. More than two-thirds of the new roles were filled with internal transfers, while the remainder were hired externally.

“We helped employees understand what digitization means, what the new skills of the workforce would look like, how we need to develop them and how it would impact specific roles.”

Reskilling or upskilling employees–reskilling involves learning new skills for different jobs while upskilling improves employee skills that are applied in their current roles–is no longer a trend but a survival strategy that fuels or sustains a company’s growth. As technology evolves and assumes more workplace tasks, HR has discovered that many employees are not equipped to handle 21st-century responsibilities, such as programming robots to stock shelves or manage inventory. To succeed in the digital era, HR professionals are transforming the learning and work experience. They’re identifying internal skills gaps and investing in employee-reskilling programs. But instead of traditionally matching people to positions, HR is linking employee skills to work that needs to get done.

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“We had a huge focus on expanding skills in our customers and making sure–from a digital-transformation perspective–that our customers have professional offerings that are delivered across the globe to increase their technical knowledge,” she says.

Among HR’s challenges, adds Yankie, is preparing leaders to articulate the “why” behind reskilling, finding balance between investing in reskilling programs and hiring external talent, and minimizing unconscious bias by extending reskilling opportunities to the entire workforce.

The company is considering a reskilling program for frontline leaders and currently reskills finance, IT and HR professionals to ensure it has the right skill sets in place to support its future. The project started in the U.S. and is being rolled out in other countries, adds Yankie.

“We bring the perspectives of both sides together [our customers and business] to understand how we have to reskill to meet customer demands in the future,” she says.

Clear career paths

While reskilling is an effective way to help employers keep pace with new skills needed, employees must buy into the concept for training to be effective.

Consider Walmart. In 2017, it launched the Walmart Academy in 200 stores nationwide and then introduced 14,000 reskilling courses last year via a LinkedIn-style online-learning platform for its 1.4 million U.S. employees, says Donald Fan, senior director in the global office of culture, diversity and inclusion at Walmart.

As Walmart designs its future workforce, he says, HR aims to break down traditional jobs into tasks. Which ones could be automated? Which ones could be contracted to gig workers? Which ones need to be performed in-house? It is the latter category, he says, that defined its reskilling curriculum.

After identifying skill gaps within its workforce, Walmart learned that IT skills were in short supply. So, the retailer collaborated with IBM, the Consumer Technology Association and other companies to form the Apprenticeship Coalition to help employees train for new IT jobs.

Still, more needed to be done. HR developed clear career paths for reskilled individuals and provided talking points for managers to encourage staff to take advantage of reskilling programs that utilized new technology. Fan points to virtual reality-based modules that focus on digital literacy, interfacing with customers and improving customer flow, personal development, financial literacy, and health and wellness awareness.

Walmart Academy also supports an activity-planning team comprised of store coordinators who manage training and logistics. They receive an online newsletter that updates them about new classes and offers additional learning resources.

“We look through futuristic lenses,” says Fan, explaining that Walmart’s leaders initially discussed the company’s future brand and value proposition, the talent pipeline it needs to thrive and new ways of working.  “Jobs are defined as more career-oriented versus task-oriented. That drives our reskilling training programs and efforts.”

Part of the job

According to a new report published by the World Economic Forum, Towards a Reskilling Revolution, companies must share detailed information with workers about positions that may become obsolete and create possible transition opportunities and attractive upskilling and reskilling programs with minimal barriers to entry.

“Strategic workforce planning must be translated into HR practices and shared with all employees, who tend to have less insight than companies when it comes to future skills needed,” states the report. “However, online learning alone is often not effective, and a blended training approach–where online training is accompanied by classroom modules, on-the-job training and mentorship programs–frequently offers the greatest potential for impact.”

Make no mistake: Employees expect reskilling. Some even demand it. The report mentions results from the Decoding Global Talent 2018 Survey by Boston Consulting Group that questioned more than 360,000 global employees and job seekers around the world.

According to the report, employees value learning and training opportunities and career- development options more so than their job security, financial compensation and the interest they find in their day-to-day job.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1.37 million workers projected to be displaced out of their jobs in the next decade “may be reskilled to new viable [similar skill sets] and desirable [higher wages] growing roles at an average cost of $24,800 per displaced worker.”

But reskilling can be an uphill battle, especially when it involves employee de-learning. Unlike reskilling that helps employees learn 21st-century technologies and skills to perform a different job, de-learning helps workers unlearn traditional ways of working, forget job descriptions and rethink what it takes to be best in class, according to the WEF.

Perhaps nothing is more difficult than changing employee minds and behaviors.

At Dentsply Sirona, unlearning is an integral part of its systematic approach to professional employee development. Yankie says employees continuously train and learn new things, partly through its e-learning platform, and are encouraged to question what they have learned in the past. By design, teams are formed with diverse members who “reverse mentor” peers across all ages by teaching them new technology skills. Through the company’s integrated degree program, young employees are also connected with seasoned professionals to de-learn by experiencing new perspectives and challenging deep-routed routines.

“[This] is an essential part of reskilling,” Yankie says. “Our overall goal is to help our employees adapt to new tools. This most often comes along with learning about new ways of working due to digitization or other fundamental changes. Sometimes, but not always, this needs a prior process of de-learning of specific habits if these contradict the new ways of working.”

Meanwhile, one out of three workers are concerned that their jobs will be replaced within the next five years by automation or artificial intelligence, according to Mercer’s Global Talent Trends 2020 survey. Eighty-nine percent of responding companies are also restructuring, which leads to job displacement and fuzzy career options.

Kate Bravery

“In the rush to de-layer organizations, we squashed career pathways,” says Kate Bravery, global head of advisory and insights at Mercer. “So, younger people are not always seeing the next role in their company because it’s not clear.”

She says key barriers to reskilling include “time poverty,” or lack of time to reskill and the inability of reskilled workers to move from one career track to another. But among the most “shocking” results from Mercer’s survey is that executives felt that only 45% of their workforce could adapt to the new world of work. Yet, 77% of responding employees support reskilling.

Likewise, Bravery says, many HR professionals believe their ability to create a reskilling agenda is hampered by not knowing what skills current workers possess and not linking reskilling to business goals.

Successful reskilling requires HR professionals to shift their focus from job architecture to skill architecture, hone career paths for specific employee populations, offer peer-to-peer learning and educate line managers on how to make strategic decisions about the workforce, she says.

“The whole concept of making good strategic decisions is about when does it make sense to build capability, buy capability or redesign jobs,” says Bravery, pointing to a client that built a nine-month reskilling program to transition executive assistants with strong coordination skills into program managers. “Employees realize that it has to be part of their life if they want to be relevant in the future.”


Unfortunately, many companies engage in reskilling without a clear goal in sight, says Ravin Jesuthasan, managing director at Willis Tower Watson. He says he’s lost track of how many companies have invested millions in reskilling but don’t realize any ROI.

“Match skills to tasks or work, as opposed to matching a person to a position,” he says, adding that HR needs to break down job responsibilities, turn them into projects and have them completed by combinations of people, as opposed to one dedicated person in a full-time job. “That’s the big mindset shift that organizations are struggling with; successful ones are addressing it and seeing some pretty significant gains.”

Ravin Jesuthasan

Business leaders must also engage in this conversation upfront, he adds, which can help ensure that the organization can generate the demand for these new skills.

“Then, make it as easy as possible for a business leader to tap the person you reskilled,” Jesuthasan says. “Active management of the utilization of these skills needs to happen. That’s a key part of HR’s role.”

Community effort

Nearly two years ago, BDO USA, a tax and financial-advisory firm that supports 7,330 employees (BDO supports 88,000 global employees) raised the digital quotient of its client-service professionals by challenging them to learn about digital trends and emerging technologies.

“Our workforce expects to be doing things on the leading edge of technology,” says Cathy Moy, chief people officer at BDO USA. “You can’t stay in the game with profitability unless you’re operating with efficiencies that these technologies and digital transformation bring.”

Roughly half of its U.S. workforce completed the 12-hour challenge, a self-paced, online-learning program about robotic-process automation, bitcoin and other technologies. Business units with the highest completion rates received pizza parties, online recognition and bragging rights.

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Meanwhile, BDO isn’t upskilling in isolation.

“We’re part of a broader community of public accounting,” Moy says, adding that she serves on an emerging-technologies taskforce for the Association of International Certified Public Accountants. “We want our people to be at the leading edge and contribute to the community as a whole in our industry.”

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Carol Patton
Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at [email protected].