When the CBI originally reported that the killer combination of the changing nature of the economy, digitalisation and the “great resignation” would mean that 90 percent of British workers will need new skills by 2030 to remain employable, it seemed like another generation’s problem. But recent experiences have accelerated that prediction to now and the pressure is well and truly on, as organisations rush to understand what re-, up-, cross- and multiskilling really means and how it can be achieved.
Every year that passes simply increases the pressure and costs on employers. The CBI forecasts an annual incremental investment of £13bn will be required to close the skills gap by 2030. It’s a colossal amount of money to meet an ominous date, that just seems to grow bigger the nearer it comes. So, has your organisation heeded the warnings and how much have you increased your employee L&D budget by? More importantly, do you think it is going to be enough, as the many pressures begin to have impact on your capacity to find the skills required? There can be few HR practitioners, recruiters and L&D specialists that don’t already know that up-skilling, re-skilling and multiskilling the workforce, to keep pace with the changing operational landscape, is an urgent and impending necessity.
I remember a time when an apprenticeship with British Gas or Rolls Royce meant a good job for life, with a trade and a skill, handed down by time-served veterans to fresh-faced youngsters straight out of school. These were coveted roles, hunted by proud parents and, whilst perhaps the money was pretty rubbish during the apprenticeship, the end game was well worth it. Firms like the aforementioned British stalwarts, had no choice but to grow their own talent to refresh the labour pool and fuel growth. Put simply, it was an unavoidable cost of doing business. How times change – and continue to change – and what were once seen as jobs for life, might no longer seem so relevant and safe. But just whose job is it to fix a problem of this scale? If the CBI is to be believed, then this is a national emergency and frankly, I agree. Every year that passes simply increases the pressures and costs on employers.
The Government – distracted by pandemics and world turmoil – could and probably will respond to the immediate and long-term skills crisis, by pointing to the apprenticeship levy and the recently announced Lifetime Skills Guarantee scheme, designed for adults educated below A-Level (circa. 11 million) to access and participate in almost 400 training courses. Call me cynical, but I see a number of problems with this latter initiative. Firstly, it will require people – who, by default, do not have an academic background – taking time out to home study. Anybody who has tried to home study will know the self-discipline and commitment required to see it through, not to mention the impact on loved ones when precious family time is eaten up with studying. Secondly, there is a big difference between a skilled employee and a person with a certificate. If somebody who had never ridden a bicycle read a manual, took an exam and passed with flying colours, they still would not be able to ride a bike, because it is a learned competence, where a certificate is pointless. Employers want – and need – competent employees and a home-tutored individual with no practical experience falls well short of the mark. I suspect it is better than nothing, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Employers need to solve the problem for themselves. The imperative is to invest heavily now in training the workforce of tomorrow.
Employees need to up-skill, re-skill and cross-skill in the flow of their ‘current’ work and they need to be supported and given the time and help to achieve the competencies they will need. It’s a never-ending journey, it costs money and, inevitably, there will be those reading this thinking, “what if we invest in training our people, only for them to decamp to a competitor, which didn’t bother investing in training and instead used the money to poach our staff with offers of higher wages”? I guess that is always a possibility, but I suspect that we are going to see employees become evermore discerning and choosing companies they want to work for and flatly refusing to work for others and some of that will be predicated on skills development. It is already happening, particularly with younger employees – who are genuinely concerned about issues like education, environment, work-life balance, culture and ethics – and firms are checked out on Glassdoor and other forums, long before a CV hits an inbox. Experience tells me that self-directed learning is a brilliant idea – very much like the library at my childhood school, which had the answers to every single exam we took – but was perhaps the least frequently visited room in the building.
“Build it and they will come” might have worked for Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, but it will not work for your re-skilling programme. Much like home and distance learning, it takes a very particular type of person to learn this way. What’s more, ask yourself the question, is this approach genuinely going to deliver a more competent employee or just another certificate via a different route? I believe that firms who make the deliberate and proactive decision to invest in the re-education, re-skilling and up-skilling of their workforce – and create an authentic culture of lifelong workplace learning – will be rewarded with loyal, talented and appropriately skilled employees. They will also attract younger, already more digitally-skilled workers new to the labour pool – more picky and discerning – but essential to future business needs. But this is not a case of employers becoming schools, although there are parallels with days gone by, when highly-skilled workers shadowed and mentored their apprentices, passing on knowledge and skills every day, gradually transforming new recruits into valuable assets. Of course, the fundamental difference is that the mentor would be Artificial Intelligence.
There is simply too much to learn to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to re-skilling. Whilst it may be cheaper, it fails to treat the employee with respect, as an individual and will likely disengage and disenfranchise the very people that the future depends upon. Traditional models were either hugely timeconsuming, boring or both and so the key to unlocking future skills must be to identify individual gaps and weaknesses and look to fix these – gently and genuinely – in the flow of work, in a supportive and non-critical way. It must also identify individual learning preferences and content delivered in a media that works for each and every person. The objective is to continuously develop a rightly skilled and competent workforce, not put ticks in boxes from theory-heavy tests and, in a rapidly changing environment, continually measure employee capability and competency to achieve the skills that your business needs, not certificates.
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