Having trouble hiring lately? Join the club. According to a report from the U.S. Federal Reserve in March 2018, businesses around the country are facing “persistent labor market tightness and brisk demand for qualified workers.”

The search for skilled labor has become so dire that 31 percent of small and midsize businesses (SMBs) say the availability of skilled workers is one of the three most significant external factors shaping their organization’s business goals. This research is based on a recent Gartner survey on Top Technology Trends.1 In industries like construction (46 percent) and utilities (40 percent), this challenge is even greater.

If you rely entirely on new hires to bring important skills into your organization, you’re at the mercy of these competitive and volatile market conditions. This is why it’s so important that you also upskill the employees you have. Companies that balance hiring and upskilling current workers are better built for sustainable longevity and growth.

What is upskilling, you ask? We’re here to tell you.

In this article, we’ll explain what upskilling is and offer three tips for how to successfully implement effective upskilling with any workforce.

Introduction: What is Upskilling?

Upskilling is the process of teaching current employees new skills; not only to fill important gaps in your organization, but to also help workers achieve their career aspirations.

Implementing formalized upskilling is a monumental undertaking for any business: it requires buy-in from employees, a sound strategy from leadership and the right technology to optimize administration. But it’s worth the effort. Here’s why:

  • Job seekers will love you. According to LinkedIn, learning new skills and seeking more growth opportunities are the two main reasons why workers change jobs (behind compensation, of course). Telling potential job candidates that upskilling is a company priority will help put you at the top of their list.
  • Workers will stay longer at your company. A recent study found that two in three workers quit their job due in part to a lack of learning and development opportunities. Upskilling can help retain top performers, especially those all-important millennials.
  • You’re future-proofing your business. Not only does upskilling cover your current needs, but it also prepares you for when vital skills exit the organization in the future. Sharing institutional knowledge and developing leaders ensures you aren’t left high and dry should the only worker with a specific skill decide to leave.

According to a study by Udemy, 80 percent of U.S. employees are confident they can upskill to meet market demands. Your workers are game. But are you?

Here are three important tips to keep in mind when introducing upskilling to your business.

Tip #1: Start With Employee-Driven Development Plans

“Where do you see yourself in five years?” is a corporate cliché for a reason. Should workers be forward-thinking enough to actually have an idea of where they want to be in five years, that tired question doesn’t cover the steps they need to take to get there. It’s arbitrary and lacks follow through.

To follow up on aspirations with action, you need to create development plans for each of your employees. This process is the key to jumpstarting any upskilling initiative. Development plans serve dual purposes: they get workers excited about their growth, and help management identify which current personnel members can fill important skills gaps.

Development plans start with employees figuring out answers to two critical questions:

    1. What do you want to get better at?
      (e.g., “I want to become a power user of our company’s CRM software.”)
    2. How can you get better at it?
      (e.g., “I can find tutorial videos on YouTube and start running sales reports for stakeholders.”)

Workers can then meet with their manager to go over their plan and figure out a reasonable completion date for every step that they’ve outlined. Employees are responsible for staying on top of their development plans, but managers can check-in regularly and provide help or guidance when needed.

The important caveat here is that development plans need to be employee-driven. Forcing a worker to learn a new skill or develop for a different role that they’re not interested in is a recipe for disaster. In this scenario, the worker will end up leaving the company more often than not.

Because tracking development plans for hundreds of employees can get tedious and overwhelming quickly, consider investing in a performance management system to keep things tidy. With a system like BambooHR, for example, managers can add each step of an employee’s development plan as an individual goal to track progress over time.

Tracking goals in BambooHR

Tip #2: Connect Workers with Mentors

There’s a disconnect between acknowledging the value of mentoring programs, and actually implementing them. According to a survey by Sage, 93 percent of SMBs knew that mentoring programs can help their workers succeed, but only 28 percent actually had them in place. That’s an alarming discrepancy for any business, but it’s especially concerning for anyone hoping to upskill their workforce.

Mentoring is critical to upskilling because it connects workers with knowledgeable subject matter experts (SMEs) that can teach them important lessons related to the steps they outlined in their development plan. Companies can pair employees with people in other departments or bring in SMEs from outside the company in a number of different ways to build mentor-mentee relationships:

  • Lunch-and-learns. Invite people to give presentations on different topics for a group of interested employees.
  • Check-ins. Schedule regular meetings (in-person or via video conferencing) where employees can check-in with their mentors to give updates on their upskilling progress.
  • Apprenticeships. Have workers shadow their mentors for a day to learn new skills or see what the day-to-day is like being in that role.

If you’re having trouble getting buy-in on a formal mentoring program, stakeholders should know they have their fair share of side benefits too. According to research by the Association for Talent Development, organizations with formal mentoring programs enjoy higher employee engagement and retention, better intra-organizational collaboration and more efficient knowledge management and transfer.

Again, this is an area where software can help. Mentoring software systems can help match employees with an ideal mentor based on their needs, manage mentorship resources, track program participation and generate reports.

Tip #3: Leverage the Almighty MOOC

Scheduled training sessions play an important role in upskilling, but they carry a glaring weakness: inflexibility. Unless they can break the laws of physics, people need to be at a certain place at a certain time—creating scheduling and administrative headaches, and tearing workers away from, well, actual work.

Employees need a place where they can work on their upskilling on their own time, outside of the office. They need a place that gives them a ton of options for what they can work on, with content that’s continually updated to reflect best practices.

In other words, they need MOOCs.

MOOC catalog in BizLibrary
MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, are eLearning courses that break away from the stringent schedule of traditional training. Delivered through a learning management system (LMS), companies can curate their own course libraries utilizing MOOCs from third-party sources like Lynda.com or Udemy. MOOCs created in-house provide workers with a vast library of knowledge to draw from at their leisure.

The great thing about MOOCs is that they give you complete control over the flexibility workers are given with their online training. Companies can give workers full access to every MOOC available or create custom learning paths with courses based on their needs. Analytics and employee course ratings also let trainers know which MOOCs are working and which ones need to be taken out or updated.

The result is a perfect medium for facilitating upskilling. According to a study by Harvard Business Review, 72 percent of MOOC users said the courses provided them with tangible career benefits. Forty-three percent of those respondents said MOOCs helped them prepare for a new job.

Complementing in-person training with MOOCs can help your workforce upskill faster for a fraction of the cost.

Next Steps

Even as you read this article, you have employees who are ready and eager to move on to the next big thing; the next great opportunity to advance their career or move in a new direction. Companies that fail to upskill these eager workers to fill important roles are shooting themselves in the foot.

As we mentioned in the beginning, upskilling isn’t an overnight project. It requires foresight into what your organization’s needs will be down the road, buy-in from management who may only care about how this benefits them, patience and the right technology to engage employees, track progress and ease administration.

At Software Advice, we can help with that last challenge. If your employee training systems are in need of an upgrade, head to our LMS software page to read reviews of top-rated systems and filter products based on a variety of criteria.

Information on Gartner’s Top Technology Trends for SMBs Survey

Gartner conducted this survey in April and May 2017 among 699 U.S.-based SMBs, with more than 10 employees and annual revenue of less than $100 million. The survey excluded nonprofit organizations. The qualified respondents are decision-makers or have significant influence on the decisions related to purchasing technologies for their organization.