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The Business of Learning

How Many of You Are Reskilling Employees?

It’s a worthwhile development strategy. But it may make more sense for the economy as a whole than for most organizations.

adult learning, training, reskillingI saw two articles this past week on the urgent need to reskill our employees. Both talked about the rapid and profound changes underway that are driving the need to equip our workers with the new skills necessary to succeed.

Now if you know me at all, you know as soon as I hear a new phrase, or as soon as everyone appears to be jumping on the bandwagon for the next new thing, I like to ask some basic questions. Some would attribute this to my being conservative, resistant to change or just plain old fashioned. Naturally, I don’t think of myself that way; I like taking risks, and I wholeheartedly embrace the future. But there is value in slowing down for a minute to do a high-level needs analysis.

Yes, the world is changing, and the pace of change continues to accelerate. I totally endorse the notion that for the United States as a whole, there is need to reskill workers whose skills have become obsolete. These workers had employable skills but through no fault of their own are no longer in demand. They do indeed need to learn new skills to re-enter the workforce and once again contribute to the economy.

Of course, there are other workers who were never skilled to begin with. This group needs skills as well, but we would not say they need to be reskilled. Rather they need to acquire skills for the first time. So, at the macro level there is certainly a need to both skill and reskill workers. This is the province and the mission for local and regional workforce development boards throughout the country.

But how about at the company level? Do most of our organizations have this same need to reskill workers? I don’t think so.

If a company is acting rationally, it pays its employees because they use their skills to deliver value that is at least equal to their compensation. Now, a good learning and development function can find opportunities to upskill employees so they deliver even greater value to the organization. The best organizations do this all the time through leadership training, sales training, lean processes, and a host of other great programs. But upskilling is not the same as reskilling, and we have been upskilling for the last 60 years.

Are there employees whose skills are about to become obsolete who would be good candidates for reskilling? Absolutely. Think of those in manufacturing whose manual skills are being replaced by robotics. The question for us is how many of our employees fall in this category? I don’t think the number is going to be large and certainly not large enough to make reskilling our next priority.

First, some of these employees will leave voluntarily, perhaps hoping they can still apply their skill elsewhere. Second, some whose skills are becoming obsolete may not have the talent or desire to be reskilled in the skills an organization will need moving forward. Third, some of these employees may simply not have the other attributes the organization now looks for in new employees, and it will be best to part ways. That doesn’t leave many for reskilling in a typical organization.

So, no. I don’t believe reskilling is the next priority for learning and development in the corporate sector. I do believe it is critically important for our country, and programs need to be funded to provide these new skills.

But what is true for the country is not necessarily true for individual companies, which, for the most part today, have workers with viable skills. There are critical shortages for certain positions, and there may be opportunities to reskill some existing employees for these positions. But generally, the required skills are so specific it would be unrealistic to think that many of these shortages are going to be filled by reskilled internal candidates.

So, is reskilling important? Yes, but more so for the economy as a whole than for most individual organizations.

David Vance is the executive director for the Center for Talent Reporting, founding and former president of Caterpillar University and author of “The Business of Learning.” Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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