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Guide to Upskilling and Retaining Employees in 2023

Across every industry, the upheaval of the pandemic lockdown has settled into a new environment. For some there’s an adjustment to remote work, for others a reevaluation of work-life balance. Many have reconsidered their choice of careers, resulting in a job shuffling so massive that it’s being referred to as the “Great Reshuffling.”

Even with continued job growth, the aftershocks of this disruption continue in today’s work environment, which makes it challenging for companies to hire and retain skilled employees as they seek out new opportunities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2021 report listed an overall turnover rate of 57.3% for 2021, higher than the ~40% pre-pandemic average, with 25% of current turnovers voluntary. The labor strain appears to be with us for a while, as a McKinsey survey noted that 87% of executives and managers stated they were experiencing skill gaps or expected to by 2025.

Hiring alone won’t help companies meet their demands; retaining skilled employees needs to be a core strategy. While benefits like additional pay, bonuses and flexible hours can be attractive, it’s important to understand that employees want to feel valued and fulfilled in their jobs. A LinkedIn report on learning and development found that:

  • Employees who feel that their skills are not being put to good use in their current job are 10 times more likely to start looking for a new job.
  • Companies that excel at promoting internal mobility retain employees for an average of 5.4 years — nearly twice as long as companies that do not promote training and upskilling.

Upskilling is something that companies must offer if they want to retain valued employees. However, training employees and nurturing their development has to go beyond just technical skills training. Upskilling your employees in all areas of their job — including relationship skills for working with customers and colleagues — is essential for mitigating the talent gap, preparing employees for the changing nature of work and boosting their satisfaction.

What Is Upskilling?

Upskilling is the process of teaching or training existing employees new skills. This can include introducing new technologies, adopting different approaches to work or preparing employees for higher-level positions.

Upskilling courses and training programs can be done internally or provided by a certified third-party. Or they can grow out of personal development plans that the employee is responsible for designing and implementing. No matter how they’re offered, upskilling programs will offer a mix of instruction, direction and exercises to help employees advance in some (or all) of the following areas:

Job skills — These are the “hard skills” associated with the requirements of a specific job. The World Economic Forum reports that half of all employees around the world will need reskilling by 2025 due to the changing nature of work, the increase in automation across industries and the development of new technologies. Even if the fundamental aspects of a job may not change, the tools and services that make it possible to perform that job are continually being updated. Upskilling keeps your team efficient, productive and confident in their positions.

Digital and technology skills — While digital technology is now prevalent in every industry, it can still be a challenge for frontline service employees to adopt to these newer technologies. Additionally, customers may be reluctant or uncertain about how to use new technology. Upskilling allows you to better manage the digital transformation in your organization, training your service people in the skills they need to continue performing their jobs as well as helping customers adjust to new features and functions.

Communication skillsCommunication skills can help employees build trust and deliver better solutions to customers. But good communication techniques — such as active listening for unspoken complaints and requests and reading non-verbal clues such as body language — are skills that often need to be taught. Employing these “human skills” allows the employee to empathetically acknowledge a customer’s concerns, discern what may be driving their issues and better diffuse tense situations. Once considered “nice-to-have”, upskilling in this area is now a competitive edge for top companies.

Problem solving skills — Thinking in an analytical and critical manner will allow your employees to dig past the apparent surface-level issues to get to the underlying matters that are causing a problem in the first place. Teaching active learning pushes your employees to be more creative, innovative and proactive.

Benefits of Upskilling Training

When you invest in upskilling you’re providing your employees with a greater skillset, more “tools” in their toolbox and the opportunity to grow into new positions.

  • Empowering and investing in employees boosts their morale and helps keep them satisfied with their position. Fostering this sense of confidence and fulfillment helps to retain valued employees.
  • Better skilled and happier employees are more likely to provide excellent customer service, which also increases customer satisfaction.
  • Having personal development and training programs for upskilling is helpful for attracting new talent. Prospective employees will be more likely to apply for positions where they feel they can grow and advance.
  • Upskilling keeps the organization flexible and current, allowing teams to leverage new technology and ensure they stay on top of industry trends and developments.
  • Inviting your employees to an upskilling training session shows that you care. It conveys that training will bring added value to them at work, but also to their personal lives outside of work — especially when it helps them build valuable social skills. That sort of “wow” effect will have a positive impact on retention.
  • Upskilling managerial and supervisory skills has a cascading effect. A more robust and effective leadership team empowers, engages and energizes the rest of the company.

Overall, upskilling programs will increase your operational efficiencies, help you retain top talent and allow your organization to be more cost effective and competitive.

8 Strategies for Upskilling Programs

There are a few steps you can take implement an upskilling program:

  1. Ensure that your upskilling opportunities are available and affordable for all employees. This includes allocating time during the work day for them to pursue their development or through lunch and learn sessions. You can also offer to subsidize their training and development if it’s through a third party.
  2. It can be overwhelming for employees to understand their options. Have your organization, possibly the human resources department, provide guidance through personalized development plans; they can also highlight credentialing opportunities that are specific to jobs and responsibilities.
  3. Involve management in the process from start to finish — from the design of the program to the self-reflection and evaluation and, most importantly, in the training sessions themselves. Managers should be sitting in on the exercises, not to observe and judge, but to actively participate. The more that the management team can be a part of the entire process, the more the lessons learned will resonate across the entire organization.
  4. Make the upskilling directly relevant to your employees’ day-to-day roles, so that they see direct and immediate benefits and gain a sense of success and trajectory in your organization.
  5. If the upskilling goes beyond pure technical skill and requires behavior change, be sure that the instructional design incorporates a robust embedding program so that new skills are turned into new habits.
  6. Be open to feedback and requests from your employees. They may be familiar with certain upskilling opportunities or have insights into programs that are specific to their field. Ask them to suggest which skill areas they’re interested in developing and what opportunities they want to explore. Encourage them to submit their own development plans.
  7. Be sure to measure your training results, including an assessment of new skill adoption as well as measurement of training ROI. It is best if these measurements are transparent to the trainees, as they will understand how their new skills are impacting company results. This is a powerful additional learning opportunity and motivator.
  8. Don’t treat upskilling as merely side projects or required tasks. Establish a culture of learning by promoting the benefits, celebrating achievements, offering incentives and rewarding employees for their efforts. Ensure that upskilling is available and accessible for all of your employees by offering a range of different opportunities, from virtual courses to mentoring programs.

Training Interpersonal Skills for Leadership: An Upskilling Case Study

The team at Global Partners Training recently saw a powerful example of the positive changes that come with upskilling your leadership team.

A major company in the food industry invited us to present an upskilling program on interpersonal communication and management training for their supervisors. We understood that many of the attendees had never received any training related to soft skills, interpersonal communication or employee management.

The participants had excelled in their previous positions as operators or team leaders, and then received a promotion to supervisor. While they had training on the expected duties of their new roles, many were not prepared for the responsibilities of a leadership position. Beyond overseeing employee performance, they now had to mediate conflicts that might involve union issues, or resolve tensions between operators and the management team. They were also confronted with the difficulty of integrating the culture of acquired companies, coordinating different working styles and building cooperation between different teams. The challenges had reached a point where the company realized that their supervisors needed more support.

Our approach to upskilling and training soft skills, or relationship skills, is really about training people to adopt new behaviors. Learning a new hard skill is rather straightforward — if a machine or software is updated with a new operational sequence, the user reads a manual or memorizes the new sequence or protocols. In contrast, learning a new set of soft skills may require unlearning previous habits, many of which these managers use in all of their day-to-day interactions. It also required that we show how these interactions were relevant to their jobs. Asking people to alter the approach they’ve grown comfortable with and forming new habits has to come about through repetition and a willingness to engage.

Prior to the workshops, we conducted interviews with management about common issues and problems that were likely to arise, and we developed role plays that enable participants to practice new skills in ways that were directly relevant to the participants’ jobs. So for example, when we engaged participants with an exercise about something going wrong on the production line, many of them could relate the scenario directly to their own experiences. That level of understanding went a long way toward shaking off any initial reluctance to the process and getting the participants to fully buy in.

We engaged the employees through three separate face-to-face workshops spaced in time. Ultimately, the success of the program hinged on repetition and accountability. Repetition helped to make the process autonomous, so participants could continue developing their skills long after the training program had ended. Participants also knew that their peers would hold them accountable, and that we would follow up to see if they had followed through on their exercises. This accountability system created an expectation of commitment to improvement and application of the learned skills.

As a result of the training, not only did we see a shift in attitude from some of the more challenged individuals, but many of their co-workers also became more accepting of and positive in their relationships with their supervisors. According to testimony from participants, they experienced improvements when it came to:

  • Feeling more comfortable going to supervisors with whom they previously had difficult relationships
  • Having a more structured approach for resolving issues through personal action plans
  • Understanding how to be more empathetic in their interactions with others
  • The opportunity to share knowledge, utilize learned skills and coach others
  • Employing an overall more professional approach to workplace communication and interactions

The site director was so impressed with the developments, he wanted to bring these peer coaching techniques to different plants. In doing so, the development of these skills could not only be for individual personal development, but would result in a cultural shift that affected the entire company. He was very pleased not only with the results, but with the participants’ embrace of the training, explaining:

We do a lot of trainings. The best that can happen when we deploy a training is that we hear no one complaining about it. The usual thing that happens is that people knock on our door to complain that the process is useless or doesn’t apply to them. In this case, people came to knock on our door to say that they enjoyed it. And to thank us for the training.

Ready to upskill your service team into proactive problem solvers and trusted business advisers? See how in our free webinar: The Secret to Wowing Customers and Unlocking New Revenue

FAQs About Upskilling Training

What’s the difference between upskilling and reskilling?
Though there may be some cross-over, in general upskilling is more about teaching new skills and competencies relating to an employee’s current responsibilities — even if that means advancing into a leadership position. Reskilling is more about “changing lanes” and teaching a new set of skills to employees who are leaving their previous positions for entirely new roles.

How do you ensure that upskilling is effective?
You’ll need to implement different performance measurements when upskilling your workforce. The metrics you use to gauge their learning and development will vary depending on the skills being taught, but they should measure both short-term and long-term advances in knowledge and performance.

What is microlearning?
Microlearning comes in a wide variety of formats (text, video, audio, Powerpoint, etc.) and provides learners with information in shorter chunks over time. Used alone or as an assist to longer courses or training sessions, microlearning upskilling sessions typically take less than 10 minutes each to complete. Microlearning is often delivered digitally via learning platforms that can be accessed remotely and at any time.

How do you know if there is a payoff from upskilling?
You have to measure the training results to determine the overall ROI. This is not as simple as it looks because you must consider multiple factors, including:

  • Skill adoption — Which skills were gained or enhanced due to the training program
  • Causality — If the impact was a result of the training and not because of other factors
  • Returns — Determining the amount of time and money that were saved

It can be difficult to establish the right metrics to make these measurements, which is why it’s best to consult an expert in this area to make sure all measurements are done properly.

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