Upskilling: A Key Driver of Employee Engagement

Sunil Reddy
June 14, 2021

Well before the pandemic, we were already facing two critical issues. First, skills gaps: between 2019 and 2020, a third of U.S. employers saw an increase in skills gaps, and 80% said skills gaps were getting in the way of filling job openings. The need for digital skills has never been more pressing— and the pandemic revealed just how important it is in terms of operations, continuity and overall business success.

The second issue is employee engagement. Recent reporting by Gallup found good news: there’s been a slight uptick in employee engagement since 2019 — to 36% in mid-2020. But 14% of workers are still actively disengaged — and we’re still far below where we need to be. We’ve seen plenty of evidence that lack of engagement can not only affect performance and productivity among individuals, it can bring down teams as well. As the ripples spread throughout the workforce, it can disrupt everything from the workflow to communication, and bring down retention rates.

The answer is focusing on learning —specifically, upskilling. Developing your employees is an effective way to close the skills gap and boost engagement at the same time. It also enables employers to better adapt their workforce to increasingly digital demands without having to markedly increase their hiring investment. And it puts your workforce in a better position in terms of continuity, which is certainly key in any crisis, and can stress the finite employee footprint in midmarket firms.

If you already have an established learning management system and program in place, it’s a matter of strategizing and building on it. If you’re looking to put one in place, you’ll want to look for one that supports upskilling components. In both cases there are clear advantages to a scalable, Cloud-based system that’s part of a digital HR management platform in terms of overall planning and management. And a learning platform that covers everything from onboarding to upskilling is the most effective approach to make employee development an integral part of the employee experience — another key factor in engagement.

Creating a Smart Upskilling Strategy

Upskilling builds a mindset of real growth — for the employer as well as the employee. It focuses on people and their potential to improve and expand their roles in the company. It enables them to learn new tools, increase their knowledge base and scale into new positions and responsibilities. It also conveys to employees that they’re valued by their employer. That’s an enormous factor in engagement, and certainly welcome after all the adjustments people may have made during the pandemic.

Here are 6 cornerstones of a modern upskilling strategy that will garner clear results:

  1. Find the gaps.

No question the workplace has transformed, but are your employees keeping up? According to a recent survey by Gartner, 58% of the workforce will need new skills to do their job successfully. Most employers know their employees need some development. But they may not know exactly what development employees need. Looking at your core functions and what skills are expected among your competitors — are you on par? Reach out to managers as well as employees to find out where they believe the gaps are: your managers will know better than anyone what teams need to excel and perform. Then create a list of skills employees need to be trained up to. Incorporate them into in your learning platform so they’re part of the overall L&D picture.

  1. Shift to a learning culture.

Covid-19 has changed employees’ priorities when it comes to their workplaces. Among the most important changes employers note their employees made during the pandemic, 34% pointed to staff skills training. And 29% of candidates expect employers to focus on training staff to new ways of working in 2021. When the HCM platform includes learning as a key component, there’s no question in employees’ minds that their development is indeed a priority in your work culture. That can have an impact on engagement, retention and also recruiting — as the labor market heats up, having a learning culture is a boost to your employer brand.

  1. Incorporate soft skills into upskilling offerings.

Midmarket organizations are often working with scaling ambitions but limited spending power, and it may seem cost-effective and common sense to only focus on specific or technical learning offerings. But a major facet of the skills gap actually has to do with skills that extend across a broad range of roles and levels. Employers put skills like reliability and dependability on top of the list, along with the ability to collaborate and work in teams, problem-solve, and adaptability to new tasks and new modes of working. Incorporate learning modules that coach and reinforce these abilities can enable your workforce to better meet the challenges ahead — and improve collaboration, teamwork and individual performance in your workplace.

  1. Align upskilling courses with company initiatives.

Developing employee understanding of new initiatives can be challenging. Providing learning components can help promote their buy-in and engagement, which could be keys to success. If your employees aren’t invested in a proposed initiative for your organization, they're not going to be engaged in its goals. It’s a smart strategy to make sure your initiatives are reflected in learning and development offerings. Say, for instance, you’re a mid-market firm that wants to be better prepared for future crises. Your goal is to become more flexible and resilient. Courses are put in place on resiliency — how to pivot to remote and maintain communication, how to run virtual meetings for efficiency, how to set up flexible schedules without disrupting the workflow. Now employees have the knowledge, the foundation and likely the confidence they need to achieve that mission.

  1. Provide employees with flexibility and choices.      

Many midmarket employers have redistributed some, if not all of their teams. Even in retail and on-site service sectors the administrative teams may have gone remote. To accommodate a range of teams from on-site to remote to blended, the key is to ensure that employees have optimum ease and flexibility. Create clear paths to a learning platform that’s easy to get to and navigate. It should be operable on mobile as well as desktop, and provide simple routes in and out of learning — if a course has to be stopped in the middle, can it be resumed? Provide a range of materials and delivery forms as well as opportunities for self-driven learning when appropriate. And accessibility is not just a best practice, so provide alternative learning options for those with hearing, sight, cognitive or mobility impairments whenever possible.

  1. Empower your managers.

Managers need to be able to choose the right courses— whether upskilling, onboarding, or requisite on-the-job certifications and skills — for their teams. They need a means to monitor participation and progress. But they also need a way to do it that doesn’t add even more to their already full set of daily tasks. A powerful digital platform can enable managers to browse and choose from the catalog of courses available to find the right ones for their people, automatically assign courses to groups of employees, and get real-time progress and completion reports. When upskilling programs are dovetailed not just into the learning platform but into your HCM platform, you can start seeing the impact of upskilling on engagement and overall performance.

So many workforces rolled up their sleeves and figured out how to navigate unbelievable pressures. Now provide those same employees with upskilling offerings that recognize their ability to operate on their own, adapt, and grow. Whether it’s micro-courses, gamification, on-demand classes, opt-in livestreams or certification courses, upskilling your employees is going to be a win for everyone. Moreover, it’s a behavior that spreads through the organization organically: as one team acquires new skills, it’s likely to inspire others. Upskilling in a natural driver of engagement, a powerful management tool, and can be an ongoing part of your organization’s mission to stay resilient, adapt to new technologies and ways of working, and retain employees.

Contact us to learn more about our powerful, scalable learning platform, and how an HCM system designed to fit the needs of mid-market organizations can benefit your company.

Sunil Reddy
Sunil has been CEO of Criterion since 2013, providing the visionary leadership that has made our human capital management (HCM) software the best user experience, functionality and value in the mid-market. He remains steadfastly committed to developing the best possible solutions for the entire employment lifecycle, helping executives to make data-driven workforce decisions.

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