Reskilling and upskilling: the scale of the problem

Andy Andrews

Reskilling and upskilling are hot topics. In my L&D Global Sentiment Survey 2022, they headed – by some way – a list of 16 options selected by more than 3,500 L&D practitioners worldwide as the key concerns of the year. The same thing happened last year, when the two terms topped the poll with the highest vote for five years.

Why the sudden interest? How much is genuine and how much is hype? I believe it’s both and, in this blog, I’ll explain why.

Old dog, new tricks?

While reskilling and upskilling might be flavour of the month, there’s nothing new about the ideas of training people for new roles (reskilling) or progressing in existing roles (upskilling).

Although the terms have come to prominence this year and last, their rise has not come out of the blue. Google trends shows both becoming popular in search terms around January 2019. The graph shows an upward trend with spikes that can be associated with events such as the January 2020 publication of the World Economic Forum’s paper, The Reskilling Revolution.

But interest in skills goes back well beyond this, as does fear of the impact of automation. In 1958, the USA entered a bad economic slump. The newspaper Nation called it the ‘Automation Depression’, singling out ‘latter-day industrial technology’ to blame for widespread job losses. But if America thought it had seen trouble, worse was to come: 1958 was also the year of the invention of the computer chip.

Twenty years later on the other side of the Atlantic, the impact of computerisation was felt hard. In the UK, the seminal BBC Horizon programme Now the chips are down, aired in 1978, featured long shots of factory workers and asked what jobs they would do in a world of computers. The final line of the programme was a call to action: “It’s time to think about the future”.

UK government ministers heeded the call, accelerating plans to introduce computers into schools to prime the pump of tech-savvy youngsters for the labour market. This is how developed capitalist economies work: skills gaps open and close, driven by the market and, sometimes, encouraged by the state.

Clearly, organisations attempting to solve their own skills gaps cannot alter the supply of labour in this way. Their choice is between buying and building skills. In The Skills Gap: Time to Take Action I suggest using the Talent Grid to understand which of four buy/build strategies will work best in particular circumstances: Discover and Develop, Recruit to Fill, Recruit Expertise and Target and Train.

Matter of scale

Given that there have always been skills gaps and, as new technologies emerge, there always will be, why the urgency now behind the idea of reskilling and upskilling? In one word, scale.

Previous concerns about the impact of the technology-driven unemployment largely focused on the jobs at risk in the 1970s and 80s – those in manufacturing. Today, however, automation today will apply as much to white- as to blue-collar jobs, which brings the prospect of much faster, wider disruption. Automating manufacturing requires re-fitting factories with complex machinery. Office jobs can be automated with algorithms, internet access and a server that might be located anywhere in the world.

Most recently, Martin and Frey’s 2013 paper The Future Of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs To Computerisation? set the tone for concerns over job losses. Cited more than 10,000 times in under a decade, the paper predicted that almost half of all US jobs were at high risk of automation over the next 20 years. While the authors have since revised their conclusions (which were criticised by the OECD in a 2016 study for taking an occupation-based rather than task-based approach), this paper lit the touch paper for a string of articles and reports expressing concerns over skills and employment in the developed world.

Easy pickings?

The noise and fears around reskilling and upskilling have also been driven by vendors sensing an opportunity. Given the high profile of reskilling and upskilling, they sense there is money to be made. They generally claim to be able to help an organisation identify its Target Operating Model (TOM) and provide the data for a workforce planning team to set a strategy in place to attain it.

The aim here is to provide an answer to executives worried that their existing processes will not be able to adapt fast enough to change. Factory owners fearing the impact of computerisation in the 1970s would have felt very much the same. Today, the bold claim is that it is possible to future-proof your organisation by creating both a model of where you need to get to in terms of skills distribution (the TOM), and a technology that allows you to get there.

For an over-worked CEO not grounded in talent recruitment, development and deployment, this is a tempting prospect. But there’s a problem: it’s more complicated than simply running your org chart through an algorithm, assigning generic skills to job families and automatically generating some skills pathways for employees.

The human touch

Once the technology and taxonomies are in place, running reskilling and upskilling programmes across your organisation is like anything else – it requires the human touch and a lot of attention to detail.

For example, it is possible – to an extent – to infer an employee’s skills using a combination of their job title and online activity and perhaps by uploading a resume/CV. But this will only be an approximation of their skill set and risks treating the employee as an object. Far better, regardless of how the initial skills set has been derived, for the employee and their manager to sit down and talk about what the organisation believes their skill levels to be, in an open discussion that refers to the taxonomies used by the business.

The other stumbling block is that while a TOM is a necessary part of planning the future of the business, is it not by itself sufficient. Skills will never be the entirety of a job role profile, and it takes a lot more than skills to be successful in any role. Boxall and Purcell’s 2003 AMO model states that performance is a function of Ability (skills and knowledge), Motivation and Opportunity. A person can have all the ability in the world, but unmotivated and in an environment that works against them, there is no chance they will deliver.

No flash in the pan

The current interest in reskilling and upskilling is no flash in the pan, and while it echoes earlier, similar concerns, it is likely that automation will affect more employees, faster, and across a wider range of jobs than previous technology-driven shifts in employment.

A crucial part of preparing people to deal with this involves asking them to learn, and that means asking them to change. Skills-based talent management technology is essential to support this, but it is by no means sufficient, and it cannot drive the process. Nobody will want to learn if they believe they are being treated as a cog in a machine.

The solution is not complex. It is to involve people in the process of change, from the start. The complexities behind effective reskilling and upskilling mean there can be no single, silver-bullet technological solution. Rather, any great programme will rest on a combination of technology, change management and – most important of all – on the humanity of the people involved.

If you are interested in learning more, register for our free webinar as Donald H Taylor and Andy Andrews discuss how you can Future Proof Your Workforce Through Reskilling/Upskilling.

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