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How rethinking upskilling can help head off the Great Resignation

Your employees want to learn and grow, says this edtech founder, but for many businesses, training programs are outdated. That may be one reason top talent is heading for the doors.

How rethinking upskilling can help head off the Great Resignation
[Photo: Siriporn Lin/iStock]

Businesses are in a battle for talent at every level. It’s not just a matter of hiring the right people but retaining them as well. With the Great Resignation underway and employees looking for more rewarding job opportunities, companies have to think about their skill development programs. Upskilling and reskilling programs will be imperative to future success.

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Corporate training programs, as they have traditionally been constructed, are no longer effective in today’s environment. Consider what companies, and employees, actually got for their time and money? In 2020 corporate America spent $165 billion on learning and development. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) reports: 

  • 64% spent internally vs.36% on external vendors and course providers
  • 75% of 1,500 managers surveyed from 50 companies were “dissatisfied” with training programs
  • 70% of employees say they aren’t taught the skills needed to do their jobs
  • Just 12% of employees apply what they learn in training to their jobs

 As with solving any new challenge, we need to look at what’s not working in order to create something that has greater value. We need to build programs that will inspire workers to stay with their respective organizations and acquire the skills that can advance their careers or allow them to transition into more satisfying roles. Doing so will reinvigorate the workforce, close talent gaps and solve organizations greatest talent needs. 

Every leadership team knows that talent is the primary enabler for higher performance.

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The Original Corporate Academy: 1.0

The corporate academy is a storied 20th century U.S. institution, beginning with GE’s Crotonville followed by business giants from Accenture to Zenith. The goal was to create a talent pipeline of managers to keep companies chugging ahead. 

Academy 1.0 was built for a different age and pace. Physical campuses, like Crotonville, were required for global companies before the ease of global communication. They replicated the centuries old university models. Investments in professors, housing, a campus and so on, made these academies rigid, expensive and resource heavy. Only the richest of firms could afford this kind of investment. Through capital intensive, companies could recoup costs and reap the long-term benefits because employees stuck around, often spending their entire career with a single company. As such, it made sense to train them up.

The experience, overall, replicated that of a fine university, and employees often viewed such an opportunity as a real benefit, to breathe, learn and re-engage. 

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Academy 2.0: The Rise (and Shortfalls) of eLearning

Rolling into the 21st century, with computing power and the internet in the hands of most every employee, there was a lot of excitement about on-demand online learning. With the potential to scale to more employees at a lower cost, the online learning revolution began. We saw the inception of elearning platforms, home-grown at first, then more commonly from third-parties, that businesses could access at a fraction of the cost of a physical academy.

Professors didn’t have to instruct live, they could pre-record content, which could then be re-used, with less expensive facilitators involved. Content could even be authored by employees. And access could be on any device, anywhere, via an LMS. 

As is often the case between major technological leaps, it takes time to imagine anew. These online courses were often little better than recording a professor or PowerPoint slides with a voice-over. The experience tended to be linear and not especially well liked. 

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Now, instead of dedicated time away on a beautiful campus, surrounded by others also dedicated to learning, it was required that you work learning into your regularly scheduled week, often on top of your regular responsibilities. 

Outside of mandatory training, the Corporate Academy 2.0, resulted in poor completion and engagement. “E-learning was boring, tedious, and hard to complete–and it missed practice, hands-on experience, and coaching,” said HR analyst Josh Bersin. “In 2015, we did a study of the net-promoter score of L&D, and it was negative.”

Academy 2.0 was a transitional phase. When TV programming was just emerging, competing with and supplanting radio programming, much of the first TV ‘shows’ were just the same radio narrators being filmed speaking into their microphone. Academy 2.0 in many ways was simply the moving online of the same 1950’s-style corporate university content.

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Rethinking the Academy: 3.0

As the rate of technology change has accelerated and diminishes the shelf-life of our skills, it has yielded a skills “emergency” globally. The World Economic Forum expects 87 million jobs to be lost to automation and 97 new jobs created that demand skills that don’t yet exist—by 2025. Technology is advancing so quickly that the shelf life, or time period that skills are needed, has shrunk to as little as two years. 

The focus on skills is already happening with leading companies. According to SHRM, companies like Unilever are “‘unbundling job roles into competencies and bite-sized tasks” that can either be done by a new employee, one borrowed from elsewhere in the organization, or outsourced to a contractor. If skills are the key to building organizational capacity and competitiveness, while unlocking individual potential, then we need to rethink our current approach to workforce-wide skill building.

To move past the pitfalls of Academy 2.0 and construct learning environments that work for our new reality, we have to address the underlying causes of failure within employee development programs. Here’s what HBR believes limits a program’s effectiveness:

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  • Learning for the wrong reason: Programs reward completion, not business improvement.
  • Learning at the wrong times: Timelines are dictated by L&D or HR, not business units. This is problematic because we forget about 75% of what we learn after just six days if it’s not immediately applied.
  • Learning the wrong content: Courses teach general business competencies, not job-specific skills.
  • Learning for the wrong people: Learning and development programs are often self-directed or not led strategically by managers or business units. 

It’s time to rethink the academy. There are a number of components that any new vision of corporate learning needs to include, but at minimum it should maintain a focus on rapid transfer of job-ready skills that are strategically aligned. To accomplish this, Academy 3.0 should make it possible for companies to deploy bespoke skill-building academies for each team or business unit, with department-specific and role-specific on-demand skill-building programs. This way the right skills can be acquired quickly and immediately put to practice. 

Additionally, Academy 3.0 must be flexible enough to meet the needs of one-off employee skill-building as well as those of specific cohorts. Employees should have anytime access to a marketplace of programs and certificate-based curriculums that keep them learning without waiting for the next “scheduled” academy to begin. Offering flexibility and personal learning paths will increase employee engagement.

Employees should not be expected to pay for these programs out of pocket or commanded to complete course modules outside of business hours. If organizations ask this of their people, they will be assured to lose talent as workers are putting a new premium on their personal lives and financial priorities. With the technologies at our disposal today, companies should be able to absorb the associated time and costs of rapid skills-based learning. They will, after all, see a significant return on the investment through a highly qualified, well-trained employee-base committed to ongoing professional development. This will enable companies to be better equipped to handle future challenges as markets evolve.

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Building Academy 3.0 is a tall order, but it is vital that we get it right. The vitality of our workforce depends on it.


David Blake is cofounder and CEO of Learn In, a talent-building startup that connects employees to training opportunities. He is also the founder of the upskilling platform, Degreed


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