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Why upskilling is more than just a cool perk in the hybrid world

Companies must treat upskilling as a critical worker benefit, like paid time off or 401(k)s, says PwC chief technology officer, Joe Atkinson.

Why upskilling is more than just a cool perk in the hybrid world
[Photo: Nick Morrison/Unsplash]

By the end of 2020, one-third of U.S. employers said the skills gap had increased compared to 2019. At least 80 percent said they had difficulty filling openings because of skills gaps, per Monster.com’s annual survey. In the next phase of post-pandemic restructuring, it’s likely that even more jobs will be remote-first, and more tasks will be automated.

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For most companies, the need for new, scalable digital skills isn’t just a pain point anymore; it’s impacting operations and growth. To meet the digital demands of work today, most employers will not have the luxury of hiring their way to a solution. Rather, employers will better meet their needs by evolving their upskilling strategy.

Get ahead of the skills gap slump

A recent Gartner survey found that 58% of the workforce needs new skills to successfully do their job. But most employers stall at the first and most critical stage of addressing the problem, which is “what are the specific new skills their employees need?”

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. Employers need to evaluate specific data, including the skills most often sought out by leading companies in their core functions. With a well-informed strategy and a better understanding of the target skill sets, employers can focus on providing the necessary training assets in new and emerging cloud software solutions, upgrading and driving adoption of collaboration tools, or equipping employees with the automation skills that allow them to unlock their own capacity.

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At PricewaterhouseCoopers, we saw this in action when we began our own automation journey. At the same time with our upskilling efforts, we wanted to tackle the processes that were inefficient and holding back colleagues from delivering their best work. First, we started tackling the automated processes of data extraction, document comparisons, and engagement management, which leaders at our company reported were the most time-consuming and took away from serving their clients.

With an upskilling strategy in motion, organizations also need to reconsider where and how they recruit talent. Continuing to seek talent from the same sources is likely to leave an organization with the same knowledge and perspective they always had. They risk missing the top talent that could help them raise their game, elevate their performance or reimagine their business. Attracting diverse viewpoints and new skills requires attracting diverse talent, and that requires a new approach.

Companies that are committed to this important goal are engaging with their local communities, and investing in the next generation of upcoming talent through educational investments and community training.

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Maximize upskilling opportunities for a hybrid workforce

The shift to a hybrid work style presents an unprecedented opportunity for an upskilling boom. Many workers who stayed in roles while navigating the pandemic are now ready to make a move. According to a March 2021 survey from Prudential Financial, one in four workers are planning to look for openings with a new employer. This flow of talent into the job market creates both opportunity and risk.

Employees will be eager to gain training, with an emphasis on digital skills, to prepare them for new and evolved roles—either inside their company or out. And if they’re looking to stay, the emerging reality of our hybrid workplaces will have more workers trying to further build those digital skills to maximize their flexibility or help them develop their value as they continue working remotely.

Employers need to recognize that in this environment, the objective is to bring your employees to the table and give them a degree of choice in how they engage in the upskilling strategy. Gamification, bite-size learning, flexibility to where your employees want to meet, and creating an opt-in environment are all critical components of overcoming the resistance that mandated training programs often encounter. As employees see their peers, who have picked up new digital skills, thrive and grow, more workers may feel inspired to broaden their horizons. And they’ll have their own choice to make: “Do I want to take advantage or not?

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Right now, this unique moment can either fall by the wayside—or turn into a perfect storm of opportunity. The skills gap, a restless and highly competitive labor market, and new hybrid formats are all coming together to create the perfect conditions for widespread upskilling.

Upskilling is the new 401(k)

With this vision, we can see how upskilling is a much more lucrative workplace prerequisite. For the top tier of talent, upskilling is emerging as a must-have employee benefit, like a retirement saving plan, employer subsidized health care, or paid time off. Many employees are already seeking out new skills and learning opportunities, which gives employers the opportunity to invest in and retain talent, contribute to business growth, create a stronger workforce culture and attract talent from competitors who have not yet recognized the trend.

Providing employees with the option to upskill, rather than a mandate, will encourage authentic interest and spur participation. But companies also have to create and protect the time to bring it to life. Leadership needs to send a clear message that upskilling is an integral part of daily work and build a culture that celebrates skills, achievements and learning. Inspiration among employees will be lost quickly if the vision of “upskilling” as a benefit is met with mixed messages, or if employee time to invest in these skills is not respected by management and colleagues.

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This concept of protected time reaches well beyond upskilling. The pandemic has caused many employees to “take stock,” and the challenges of the pandemic have also put enormous strain on the blending of work and life—because when work is always at the kitchen table, boundaries are hard to come by. Helping protect time and create sustainable boundaries between time for their work commitments and time for themselves is a growing expectation of employees, and it is critical to employees’ mental wellbeing.

There is no finish line to upskill a large, global workforce. The challenge for organizations is to embrace emerging tools and deliver an upskilling experience that helps employees rapidly climb the learning curve.

Employees, in turn, need to apply those newly-earned to the benefit of their company and themselves, enhancing both the competitiveness of the business and their personal development.

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At the same time, organizations need to tirelessly and relentlessly maintain discipline to encourage more widespread upskilling, even as everything around the workforce continues to change.


Joe Atkinson is PricewaterhouseCoopers’s chief products and technology officer.

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