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A Crucial -- But Often Missing -- Step in Tackling Skill Gaps

By Kelly Palmer, Chief Learning and Talent Officer, Degreed

When a recent Fortune/Deloitte survey asked CEOs which external issues they expect to impact their business over the next year, it’s no surprise that 70% cited “epidemics/pandemics” such as future Covid-19 variants. But even more, three-quarters, cited “labor/skills shortage.”

In fact, 60% of HR leaders say building critical skills and competencies is their number one priority for 2022, Gartner found. Distressingly, nearly half (47%) don’t know what their current skill gaps are, and 40% said they can’t develop people fast enough to meet organizational needs.

Some of this is due to the speed of change. “Nearly one in three skills that were needed for a job in 2018 will not be needed by 2022,” and the average number of skills needed for each job is increasing as well, Gartner says.

Having worked as an L&D (learning and development) leader for more than 15 years, I’ve seen what a complex task it can be, and why leaders are often unsure how to find and fill skill gaps -- which, these days, can be more like “skills canyons.” But I’ve also seen what works.

Here’s the first step organizations should take right now.

Break down skill needs by functional area

Leaders need to consider the overall business strategy and objectives, and identify three to five skills the company will need in order to achieve its goals. For example, as I explain in the white paper 7 Steps for Upskilling Your Workforce, a company that needs to embrace new advanced technologies might decide its most critical skills are data science, cloud computing, and creativity.

But this step isn’t enough. There's another crucial step that's too often missing: Different departments must also come up with their own lists of the top three skills they need. For example, marketing might decide that one of its most important skills is brand strategy. At Degreed, we identified three key upskill opportunities for our sales team: critical thinking, learning agility and empathy.

As each functional area considers the skills it needs most, be sure to consider all kinds of skills -- including those that have traditionally been called “hard” and “soft.” I no longer use those terms. Hard skills are technical skills; soft skills are power skills. They are often the most important of all.

In fact, organizations are increasingly looking for power skills. In its survey Future of Work Trends in 2022, Korn Ferry reports that “69% of the world’s most admired companies value learning agility and curiosity over career history and experience when it comes to hiring.”

Put employees in the driver’s seat

Let all employees know about the skill priorities you’ve determined. But don’t assign individuals skills they should develop. Instead, leave it up to them to pick which they want to learn.

For my book The Expertise Economy, I pieced through a great deal of research and spoke with experts in the psychology of learning. It’s clear that when people make their own choices and pursue the career paths they desire for themselves, they’re much more engaged in and enthusiastic about learning. The good news for organizations is that people generally choose to develop skills that they know their company is looking for. After all, doing so is great for their careers.

Provide employees with resources, such as online courses, internal experts who can help them learn and cross-functional projects to put those skills to use. They also need time each week or each day to focus on learning, when they won’t be interrupted. And they need the psychological safety of knowing that their manager supports them in taking time away from other tasks.

On a regular basis, managers should check in with their employees to gauge progress in learning efforts. Rather than discussing just how many hours or courses they may have completed, discuss what they’re learning and how the process is going. Also, use skill assessment tools that allow them to see what level they’re starting at and how far they’ve come.

Track real-time progress

All of the data about employees’ skills and their ongoing learning efforts should be collected and combined so executives can see at all times who is learning what and which skill gaps are being addressed. The platforms that allow this to happen can bring about dramatic change. At times, leaders think they don’t have anyone with a certain skill set, but the technology that tracks employee skills proves otherwise.

These efforts do more than build skills. They also help prevent employees from leaving. One recent survey suggests that “almost 60% of people considering changing jobs are looking for new skills,” TechRepublic reports. At a time when the “great resignation” has businesses losing large sums of time and money to employee departures, a commitment to their development is central to the solution.

Kelly Palmer is Chief Learning and Talent Officer at Degreed, an adviser and keynote speaker on the future of work, and co-author of The Expertise Economy.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.