The skill building challenge

Post-pandemic, the task of upskilling or reskilling employees has become a global imperative.
0523 Editorialcontent Feat Workforce Devel

With a major research university and a state Capitol just blocks away, Madison and its surrounding area has shined as a beacon of educational prowess and opportunity. More and more, however, some are challenging the value of a four-year college degree when it comes to finding employment.

Tuition is one issue. A recent Harris Poll found that 51% of U.S. adults consider cost a barrier to a college education. “As more employers recognize that the lack of a four-year college degree doesn’t mean a potential worker doesn’t have value, the return on investment for university graduates is dropping,” wrote Kerry Healey, president of the Milken Center for Advancing the American Dream in a CNBC op-ed [May ’22.]

Healey says many employers have used a college degree as a gatekeeping requirement — as a way to efficiently screen resumes — even for lower-skilled jobs. “The truth is, a majority of jobs do not really require a college degree, but they do require skills — both technical knowledge and so-called ‘soft skills’ needed to relate to customers and co-workers.”

The global workforce is changing, and with that comes discussions about the relevancy and capabilities of current and future workers. Consider this: In 2016, the World Economic Forum projected that 65% of children entering primary school today would work in jobs that do not exist currently. By 2025, experts also predicted that 50% of all employees will need to be reskilled in order to adopt to new technology.

In a study of the future workforce for Springer Science+Business Media LLC [June 2022], Ling Li of Old Dominion University examined what could lie ahead relating to Industry 4.0, or I4.0, which is the process of revolutionizing global manufacturing and engineering.

“Workforce, capital, and technology are the three major components that significantly contributed to the evolution of the past three industrial revolutions,” Li states. “It is time to look at the talent required to realize the vision of Industry 4.0 and beyond.”

As technology evolves, the significance of upskilling and reskilling employees has been enhanced. An estimated 40% of workers will require reskilling for six months, with 50% needing to reskill in the next five years due to the economic impacts of COVID-19 and increased automation, according to the results of an October 2020 Future of Jobs survey.

This is sparking a shift toward lifelong learning for people of any age, as universities work to ensure a future-ready workforce.

A matter of degree

We asked for local input on trends in upskilling and reskilling for the future. Not surprisingly, technology is playing a big role.

First, let’s define the terms: Upskilling relates to training programs (both hard and soft skills) designed to expand and diversify an employee’s career. Reskilling means developing skills for a different job or an entirely new role within a company.

Adam Honey, director of operations for Spherion, a national employment firm with two locations in Madison, says Spherion partners with local colleges and groups such as The Urban League of Dane County when it comes to finding and training job candidates, but in this current environment, finding the right talent has proven to be elusive.

That’s why upskilling works, Honey says. “If an applicant comes in with a lot of great attributes but is missing a few necessary skills, we try to help them gain those skills by working with our partners. We also have testing and can close the skills gap that way.”

The company always participates in job fairs, he says, and at the end of April it participated in the WDA Southwest Wisconsin Virtual Hiring Event.

It’s the technology, not so much the job candidates, that have changed through the years, Honey explains. More people are choosing to respond to video or telephone interviews, and many prefer texting instead. “It’s just a different way of doing things,” he says.

At Hausmann Group, Sam Tews, director of human resources, uses technology regularly. “We invest a lot into technology platforms, reevaluating our workforce, and doing a needs analysis for the future. We look at where we might be falling short and how we can close the gaps and incorporate a digital component within that.”

The independent insurance agency uses LinkedIn Learning, Microsoft Teams, self-service portals, and other programs, but recently, Tews has noticed a new trend:

“I’m seeing job descriptions that are more focused on skills-based credentials rather than education-based credentials, which is interesting,” she says. “Years ago, four-year degrees were required. Now it seems a degree is important, but it also may not translate to success.” Instead, applicable experience and promotability are proving more effective.

This reinforces Healey’s op-ed assessment that pressure placed on businesses by COVID-19 and the Great Resignation has made some employers take a fresh look at how job applicants are assessed. Companies are seeking new or previously overlooked sources of talent, including those without college degrees.

Opportunity@Work, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank founded in 2015 to connect overlooked communities with technology job openings, reports that there are more than 77 million American workers without college degrees. Of those, as many as 30 million have the skill sets required for higher paying jobs but have been held back by degree requirements.

Reducing degree requirements helps widen the candidate pool and creates diversity, Tews notes, allowing employers to engage candidates in conversations more applicable to the position. Candidates are more interested in their potential learning and development opportunities, so what does it look like at your organization?

At Hausmann, learning and development opportunities are equally important. “We pride ourselves on being technical experts, but we also know we won’t always be able to hire at the expert level.”

For example, Hausmann might hire someone who has very little or no experience in the industry and back them up with a support system designed to keep them on track well into the future.

Knowledge-based management systems play a big role as well. A knowledge-based system provides a digital library of information about people, a product, or a process, Tews explains. It offers things employees should know about the company and it’s scalable, adaptable, and designed so everyone can participate.

The self-service aspect is particularly useful because it allows employees to self-learn things like what to do in case of a fire, how to conduct a renewal for health care during open enrollment, or how to fill out and submit an expense report.

As a task management tool, there are multiple programs out there to help companies, especially with succession planning when institutional knowledge could be walking out the door. “Don’t keep your tasks on your desktop!” Tews cautions.

“We’ve got people retiring, so there’s institutional knowledge that they’ve developed through the years that we need to maintain. It can’t retire with them.

“I always think about the employee lifecycle with the end goal being retirement. How do we keep those skills here?”

Another upskilling trend Tews identifies is the realization that career advancement requires some level of cross training. While Hausmann doesn’t have a formal cross training program in place, the company is getting more intentional about bringing people together to support their development. “Just because someone is good at one job doesn’t mean they’ll be a good leader,” Tews comments. “They need to
be emotionally intelligent yet vulnerable, be able to read a room, and able to bring out the best in people. That’s a behavioral piece, not technical.”

That type of upskilling requires a different level of assessments, she adds, and that’s when Hausmann brings in a business coach to work with leadership candidates. “There’s no degree or certificate for emotional intelligence,” Tews says.

Accuray Inc. is a global company that manufactures radiotherapy devices here in Madison. Melanie Gebauer is the vice president of global human resources.

Gebauer says Accuray provides career laddering for both the technical and managerial sides of the business. That type of dual laddering allows the technical staff to achieve technical growth, progression, and compensation versus following a traditional manager-director leadership path.

“In technical roles, people sometimes feel they need to be a manager in order to progress in their career,” Gebauer explains, “but the skill set of a technical person and managerial competencies are not always easily found together.”

Job positions at Accuray are posted internally as well as externally, allowing employees the opportunity to express their interest in applying for an alternative role.

“We don’t necessarily have a program to provide them with skills,” Gebauer says, “but we do offer tuition reimbursement should they need specific skills.”

Accuray also makes LinkedIn Learning available for all employees so they can engage in self-directed training and personal development based on where they’re skills may be lacking or where their interests lie.

“LinkedIn Learning is an online platform in multiple languages and it’s really conducive to a company like ours that’s very global in nature. It’s a way for us to offer training and development across a variety of content in an online fashion.”

On a positive note, Gebauer reports hiring is a bit easier these days compared to 2021 when there were not enough people to fill all the positions. Recent layoffs at tech companies nationwide have helped the tide shift, she notes. “It’s becoming a bit more employer friendly because more people are looking for opportunities.”

Global obstacles

As the world becomes more interconnected, Ling Li’s examination of the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0, suggests reskilling challenges will be “particularly acute” in areas like operations and manufacturing, transportation, and retail due to the repetitive nature of many tasks that make them prime for automation or digitization. Workers in these types of jobs also tend to be less educated, so reskilling will be more urgently needed to “maintain the stability of a particular part of the middle class,” Li suggests.

Questions also remain about the willingness to upskill or reskill, particularly among older workers, and how to share the costs of upskilling.

The World Economic Forum’s January 2021 report [“Upskilling for Shared Prosperity”] argues that people should be given the opportunity to upskill because it will “help with economic inclusion and social cohesion and pave the way to accelerate the global economy.”