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Employers Need to Broaden Strategies to Close Skills Gap

Consider personalized in-house training and “new-collar" employees

A woman in glasses is looking at a computer screen.

​Traditional training no longer is the answer to reskilling your workforce, says a new global report by IBM. 

The Enterprise Guide to Closing the Skills Gap found that learning is taking longer, as new skill requirements emerge or change so rapidly that staying current can be difficult for workers. The half-life of professional skills was once 10 to 15 years, meaning half of the knowledge associated with those skills would become irrelevant within that time.

Organizations want people "who can communicate effectively, apply problem-solving and critical-thinking skills to drive innovation using new technologies, and draw and act on insights from vast amounts of data," the report said. They also want people who can work as a team, are creative and empathetic and can change course quickly.

Today the half-life of a learned skill, such as critical thinking, collaboration and communication, is five years. It's even shorter for technical skills. The findings are based on a survey IBM conducted with more than 5,250 executives in 37 countries.

Skills employers consider top priority also continue to change. In 2016, basic computer and software application skills were most wanted; two years later, employers demand, foremost, "a willingness to be flexible, agile and adaptable to change," according to the report, followed by time-management skills and the ability to prioritize.

What's worrisome, IBM found, is that half the executives who are having difficulty finding people with the skills they seek are not using any strategies to develop their current employees' skills.

They're not using recognition programs to motivate employee learning, applying analytics to predict skills supply and demand, or partnering with academia. That's probably because, IBM suggested, that those are not plug-and-play solutions. Each takes time to develop and implement.

Among employers trying to close the skills gap at their organization, the highest percentage (24 percent) rely on hiring instead of upskilling.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Employees]

But even going outside the organization for the skills employers need is not a sure-fire tactic. In the past 12 months, 83 percent of HR professionals have had difficulty recruiting suitable job candidates, according to a 2018 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Personalize Training  

Employees want to learn new skills to advance their career, according to the Pulse of the American Worker Survey that Prudential conducted in June. It found that slightly more than 75 percent of 2,000 full-time workers plan to learn new skills for that reason. And while 69 percent think they have the skills to compete in today's workforce, only 46 percent think they have the skills that will allow them to compete 10 years from now.

The Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey of 350,000 people found that nearly half think they need more education to move up in their careers. Adults without degrees said they will look to employers, community colleges and trade schools to advance their education.

But for employees to break out of their comfort zones and seek training requires a culture where it is OK to fail.

"That's a huge culture shift," said Tanya Moore. She is global business services and talent and transformation partner at IBM in Washington, D.C., and one of the authors of IBM's report.

About 30 percent of 1,200 employed U.S. adults said they fear looking dumb or incompetent if they ask for training in a skill they think they are expected to already know or have, according to a 2019 report from Sitel, Future of Work and Employee Learning.

But managers' encouragement can drive employee learning, and one way to do so is by recognizing employees' learning achievements.

"Digital badging is incredibly important," as it can motivate people "to learn new skills by trying something new," Moore said.

'New-Collar' Employees  

Employers also are starting to discover that "relevant experience is a much better predictor of success than a specific degree," said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer of SHRM. He encourages business leaders to focus primarily on skills and competencies.

There is a growing number of jobs that require more than a high-school diploma but not necessarily a bachelor's degree. IBM Chairman Ginni Rometty calls the workers who fill these jobs "new-collar" employees. They have acquired their skills from coding camps, community colleges and vocational schools.

Albert Schneider is a new-collar employee. He is a longtime IBM employee who joined the company when he was 19 years old and a sophomore in college. He started as a computer operator.

He eventually received his bachelor's degree and has held nine different jobs during his 40 years at IBM, according to a profile of him on the IBM website. He took internal and external courses, attended mini-camps at Harvard Business School, and earned a variety of certifications and badges. Today, he is vice president of global client innovation centers, responsible for operations in 13 countries. designates some jobs as new-collar positions, such as pharmacy technician—a job in the health care field that doesn't require a four-year degree. Skills needed to perform the job can be learned through an online program or an accredited vocational or technical college in preparation for the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board exam.

Employers need to ask themselves if a college degree is necessary for the position they are looking to fill, Moore said.

"You've got to train [employees] once they're a part of your organization anyway," she added, because the half-life of skills is so short. It used to take three days to learn a new skill, according to IBM Institute for Business Value research; now it takes 36.

[Visit SHRM's resource page on the skills gap and workforce readiness.]


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