Upskilling Employees Cannot Be an Afterthought

Image credit: iStockphoto/Radachynskyi

The mental fortitude to overcome stress, juggle work-life imbalances, and find new ways to upskill are now treasured traits for employees. Numerous analyst reports point to how employers are seeking employees with a growth mindset.

“Attitude is now key. A willingness to learn is crucial. Suppose you don’t have that growth mindset. In that case, it’s going to be very challenging to upskill you,” said Gerhard Schweinitz, director for talent in APAC at Contino

Schweinitz knows the value of having a growth mindset. His company prides itself as a people-first, engineering-led technical consultancy. Learning and sharing new knowledge with customers is its competitive differentiator.

In fact, Contino insists on sharing their knowledge and training their customer teams. And this knowledge goes beyond just the project scope.

“We are coaching our customers on what they should do and the communication tools that need to be set up. Because communication and collaboration are key, and you need to have the right processes and technology set up to enable that,” he explained.

Think before you fire

Redundancies often dampen the enthusiasm to grow through learning. COVID-19 has made the situation worse. Companies are culling entire departments to remain operationally viable.

But Schweinitz urged caution. Besides tarnished reputation, firing and then later hiring bleeds valuable talent — talent that could have stayed and grown if given other opportunities.

“When an organization transforms a lot, some organizations want to make some people redundant because they want to hire those with new skills. And I’m not a fan of that approach, personally, because it may be easier to teach the technical skills than losing all that business IP,” he said.

He admitted that the situation varies between companies. But by letting experienced talent with business knowledge go, “you are losing your business IP.”

Stop searching for purple unicorns

Another practice Schweinitz is not a fan of is the constant search for purple unicorns. These are candidates that possess both the skills and experience.

Waiting for the right candidate has led to a critical shortage in critical areas, like data analytics and cloud engineering. Even today, HR leaders demand a certain number of years of experience, which makes some positions almost impossible to fill.

COVID-19 may make more talent available as they enter the market through redundancies. However, high-demand positions will still face a shortage.

Instead of looking for the purple unicorns, Schweinitz urged companies to invest in upskilling. And CHROs and HR leaders who would be driving these programs should collaborate closely with their business units.

“My view is that HR alone should not be doing workforce planning. It should be a cross-functional team effort with [business] leaders and HR,” he said.

Business leaders can advise on the “realistic nature of upskilling,” and the foundational skills needed. The CHROs and HR leaders can then support those plans with programs and structures. Cross-functional communication can also help HR identify skills gaps and determine if there are adjacent industries or functions they need to look at.

“All of this [workforce planning] needs to be done as a team. It cannot be done as a silo. HR doing that by themselves is a recipe for disaster,” said Schweinitz.

Curse of the useless skills

During the COVID-19 era, one problem is that the number of new skills that employees need to learn ballooned. For example, no one would have thought video conferencing skills would be part of every employee’s skill set.

While employees are learning more skills, the number of skills that employees will end up not using has increased. Gartner found that employees are only applying 54% of the new skills they learn. Thirty-three percent of skills needed three years ago is now irrelevant.

COVID-19 has made the situation worse, as called out in this Gartner blog.

Schweinitz called CHROs and HR leaders to find out how they can upskill their existing employees more efficiently.

“Where are we going? What are the skills of the existing employees? Where are the skill gaps? If we can map that out in a matrix, we can supplement with training and upskilling programs to build those foundational skills. And then as soon as there’s an opportunity to work on a project or program that requires the skills, you can hire them,” he explained.

This is also an area where CHROs and HR leaders can lean on consultants like Contino. Pairing existing employees with experienced consultants can help with training.

“Once the project is delivered, the consultant can come off, and your existing employee can continue developing it further,” said Schweinitz.

Look for the balance

Nurturing the growth mindset needs to take a balanced approach.

It is often easy for these employees to be given too many projects, which often leads to feelings of being overworked for someone else’s gain. The result is that many potential employees will stay in the shadows if their efforts are not recognized and appropriately rewarded.

Schweinitz noted that building a balanced approach will the CHROs and HR leaders to create the right rewards and ensure the appropriate number of projects are given to these employees.

Also, since these employees will work in projects, they will be working in matrix organizations where the teams or departments are designed around specific project outcomes. This takes a step away from hierarchical structures. But it also accentuates problems in the authority, roles, conflict management, and communications.

Schweinitz believes it is the role of the CHRO and HR leaders to empower transparent communications among employees.

“When you have agile ways of working where everything is properly mapped out, you can easily see the capacity and the speed of delivery of individuals. You can also track the amount of work that they’re doing. But you need clear and transparent communications,” he said.

He called for companies to embed transparent communications into their company values. Contino has implemented an approach where feedback is “treated as a gift,” said Schweinitz.

He saw it as one reason why they are now winning projects.

Image credit: iStockphoto/Radachynskyi