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Challenges to Upskilling: Time, Different Priorities

A hand writing the word time to learn on a clock.

​Continually developing job skills is essential for organizations and individuals to stay relevant and competitive, but while 80 percent of employers offer upskilling benefits, only 51 percent of employees use them.

There are several reasons for this, according to a DeVry University report, Closing the Activation Gap: Converting Potential to Performance by Upskilling the Workforce. The top two: a lack of time to pursue training, and a difference of opinion between workers and employers as to what skills they should be learning, according to the report.

While 84 percent of the 1,515 U.S. workers surveyed said they're responsible for keeping their skills up-to-date, 40 percent said they don't have time during the workday to take advantage of their employer's upskilling opportunities. Also, 35 percent said family and other priorities take precedence over learning and development on their own time.

A separate survey by Adobe found that career development is top of mind for members of Generation Z but they also cite lack of time as a barrier to developing their skills. Its Future Workforce Study found in a September survey that slightly more than half (55 percent) of the 1,011 workers born between 1997 and 2012 participate in career development training programs less than once a month because of a time crunch.

A Difference of Opinion

Workers prioritize learning business and financial skills, AI and software engineering/coding, data analytics, and digital marketing. They value certifications, credentials and hard skills.

Employers put higher value on critical thinking and problem-solving, leadership and management, creativity and innovation, communication skills such as writing and public speaking, and technical or subject matter expertise, DeVry found. 

But while employees and employers differ on which skills to prioritize, "there is an unexpected crossover" among those priorities that employers and employees should consider in satisfying skills development needs, according to the DeVry report.

Employers and employees need to talk to each other and realize that hard and soft skills are embedded in nearly all credential-type programs, said Dave Barnett, chief administrative officer at DeVry.

"Those things co-exist in so many formats in programs offered by higher education."

He advises using educational pathways to deliver learning in smaller, bite-sized portions or work with an education partner that offers customized training and shorter learning cycles.

A Diversity Issue

Women and people of color have more of a disadvantage for upskilling opportunities, DeVry found.

Among the 539 people of color surveyed, 42 percent said they have access to, and use, employer-provided upskilling. Nearly half (49 percent) of 968 white workers reported they have access to, and use, company-paid upskilling. All respondents for the survey were between the ages of 25 and 45.

One-third (37 percent) of Asian American/Pacific Islanders (AAPI), Black, Hispanic and Latino respondents cited workplace bias and discrimination as a barrier to meeting their upskilling goals. For example, more than one-third of AAPI workers said their employers don't contribute enough financially for upskilling. One-fourth of Hispanic or Latino workers said learning new skills is not a priority for their employers.

There's also a gender gap, with more men than women reporting access to upskilling opportunities (73 percent and 56 percent, respectively). More than one-third (36 percent) of women said they don't know how to begin the upskilling process.

"Women, in part, are seeking on-ramps to upskilling," and their uncertainty is not having an understanding of where their organizations are heading, Barnett said. "We're in a state of hyper-change, and … there are so many changes to what the skills will look like in 10 years."

That begs the question, he said, of "How do I take that first step on my career pathway?"

Women's lack of access to upskilling is also linked to a lack of time as they manage home and work life, Barnett added.

Finding the Time, Resources for Upskilling

Time is also an issue for employers; 43 percent are not willing to allow workers to upskill on company time, citing expense or having no one at their organization available to train or coach workers, DeVry found.

Informal mentoring may be the answer.

Adobe found 83 percent of Generation Z members said a workplace mentor is crucial for their career, but only 52 percent reported having a mentor.

However, mentoring doesn't have to be formalized. It can be a matter of paying close attention to someone whose work performance the employee admires, said Gyanda Sachdeva, vice president of product management at LinkedIn.

"Over the years, I realized that my most profound lessons often came from observing someone in action versus listening to the advice in theory. I learn by watching how people lead company meetings, present on complex topics, respond to tough questions or facilitate a tricky conversation," she commented in a LinkedIn post.

"There will always be value in deep one-on-one mentor-mentee relationships, but … instead of stressing over schedules and agendas, consider positioning yourself to observe your mentors in their natural environments."

Should the mentor be someone who is not highly visible in your organization or industry, or the employee doesn't have access to the mentor's schedule, "ask them if you can be part of their process," such as joining them for a sales call, sitting in on a product review, or attending their all-hands meetings, Sachdeva recommended.

"This way, your mentors don't have to do anything beyond what they are already doing, and you get a front-row seat to whatever master class they might be teaching that day."

There are actions employers can take, too:

  1. Be deliberate about laying out pathways to upskilling and overcommunicating the organization's expectations of workers for the future.
    "There has been a legacy mindset [of] 'We'll put programs in place, and those who engage with it must be our future leaders,' " Barnett said. However, with the complexity of today's work, "many folks are just grappling with how to find those [career] entry points."

  2.  Leverage existing structures such as business resource groups to promote upskilling. Such groups, Barnett noted, tend to align along commonalities such as gender, ethnicity and race and are "a real opportunity to get to targeted audiences."

  3. Create performance improvement plans (PIPs) for employees, and turn them into a positive approach to development, much like the training plans Olympic athletes follow in their quest for a gold medal.
    "In athletics, a PIP is a very positive thing," said Jeff Lowe, executive vice president and chief commercial officer at SMART Technologies, a provider of technology solutions headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. "Every high-performance athlete wants to be on a performance improvement plan. Why isn't it like that in business?"

  4. Tailor learning to the individual, and make sure it's applicable after learning takes place.
    "Are they getting day-to-day learning experiences?" asked Lauren Edwards, vice president of HR at SMART Technologies. "Are they interacting with people that can help mentor them? How are they getting the water-cooler-type conversations?"

  5. Choose smart educational partners.

  6. Be purposeful, Lowe advised, "so it's more than just a philosophy but can be developed and tracked."


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