How — and why — to upskill your employees

Technology is evolving faster than ever, and the skills that technologists use in their work are advancing just as fast. “For example, a third of the skills data scientists were using five years ago are now obsolete, and those skills have been replaced by newer and different skills,” said Fiona Mark, principal analyst at Forrester Research.

Such rapid advances in technology are only exacerbating the ongoing tech talent shortage. Despite a surge in tech industry layoffs in recent years, workers with key technical skills are still in demand, and turnover in tech roles remains high, said Susan Vroman, senior lecturer, management at Bentley University.

That’s why, instead of focusing solely on hiring new workers, more and more organizations are prioritizing expanding the technical skills of their existing employees, a practice known as upskilling. “Employers have to upskill their employees so they can do the work that needs to be done and ensure their organizations can adapt to all these changes in technology,” said Mark.

Upskilling benefits both employee and employer

Learning new skills helps tech employees build expertise, improves their job satisfaction, and increases their earning potential and future career opportunities, said Julie Schweber, a senior HR knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Thomas Vick, senior regional director at recruitment firm Robert Half, agreed. Employees who learn new skills and new technologies will become more marketable to other departments within their organizations, he added. They’ll also become marketable to other organizations in the event they decide to change jobs.

For employers, upskilling reduces the costs of hiring new workers who have the skills they need. These savings more than offset the costs of upskilling existing employees, according to the 2020 “Rethinking the Build vs. Buy Approach to Talent” report from consulting firm Whiteboard Advisors.

“Research suggests that the cost of recruiting a mid-career software engineer (who earns $150,000-200,000 per year) can be $30,000 or more including recruitment fees, advertising, and recruiting technology expense,” the report stated. “This new hire also requires onboarding and has a potential turnover of two to three times higher than an internal recruit. By contrast, the cost to train and reskill an internal employee may be $20,000 or less, saving as much as $116,000 per person over three years.”

In addition, organizations that upskill their workers demonstrate their commitment to improving the employee experience. Learning new skills can boost employee satisfaction, engagement, and performance, factors that are crucial to the future success of an organization. And it demonstrates to workers that the company supports and cares for them enough to invest in their professional development, Schweber said.

What’s more, enhancing employee tech skills enables organizations to adapt rapidly to change, stay competitive, and remain relevant in an ever-evolving business landscape, Schweber added. “Building a more technically skilled workforce increases productivity, innovation, and competitiveness.”

But how exactly do enterprises go about upskilling their technical employees?

Instill a learning culture

Megan Dixon is vice president of data science at Assurance IQ, a firm that helps consumers find and choose insurance plans. She heads the data science department, which works with cross-functional teams building data science products into the company’s platform.

Dixon’s team is constantly working to improve the data and analytics capabilities of the entire technology department, she said. Doing so ensures that all the tech employees can use the power of data to make good business decisions.

“We believe that analytical thinking and being able to leverage data for decision making is a skill for everybody — technical and non-technical employees,” Dixon said. “We really have a learning culture.”

To that end, Assurance has launched the Assurance Analytics Academy, which provides online training courses and modules to help both technical and non-technical employees learn about analytics on their own. “We want them to get a better understanding of how to use data in their decision making,” she said.

Assurance started out with foundational learning, sort of like analytics 101, Dixon said. This helps employees uncover and understand the business metrics that the company really cares about. The goal is to enable employees to determine how to tie the work that they’re doing to the specific outcomes of the business.

Dixon said she’s seen more employees using data to drive decision-making since the company launched the Analytics Academy. “We’ve been hosting data science office hours for several years now, and since the training, questions evolved from basic — like ‘how do I do X?’ — to more advanced. [Now] when we need to solve a problem, employees tend to look for root causes in the data before jumping to solutions,” she said.

“We’re working on adding more specialized tracks for more specific areas so that employees can really figure that out for the area of the company that they’re focused in,” she added.

As part of their digital transformations, many organizations create a set of courses that they might call an academy or university, said Forrester’s Mark. “It’s creating a curriculum around particular training programs that support the development of a range of skills that are aligned to organizational objectives,” she said. “Some companies may partner with third parties to develop these programs.”

However, just providing these courses isn’t enough. It’s important to create a supportive environment so employees can take the time to acquire and apply those new skills in their work, Mark said.

Develop a strategic plan

Above all else, every employer should have a strategic plan in place that details the organizations’ goals and ensure that those goals are conveyed to the employees, said Vroman at Bentley University.

Organizations need to figure out where they hope to take the business and then do a skills gap analysis, she said. In other words, they must identify the technical skills that their workforces have now and what skills the organizations will need in the future.

“By identifying those gaps, you can see what technical skills you need to have people doing and where you need to develop people,” she said. “Then you can go back and ask your employees if they’re interested in learning about the skills you need to have.”

Companies should determine what skills they need from a business perspective as well as what employees want or value in upskilling, said SHRM’s Schweber. Some employers might survey their staffs to get specific input from employees, she added.  

“Employers should explore all upskilling options, including skilled credentials, certificates, certifications, degrees, and online training,” she said.

In addition to outlining company goals and specific plans around employee skills development, an organization’s upskilling policy should clearly define what training the employer will pay for and other ways the employee will be supported while acquiring new skills. For example, employers “need to support any potential time off that employees may need to pursue upskilling,” Schweber said.

Organizations should share these policies with their employees throughout the year, including during onboarding, performance reviews, benefits communications, and annual enrollment meetings, she said.

“Employees must be aware of any upskilling or professional development opportunities that a company supports,” she said. “Make sure supervisors are aware of the company’s professional upskilling opportunities and can talk about it with their teams.”

Support both internal and external upskilling

Offering courses internally is strongly encouraged, said Vick at Robert Half. “The more you can offer internally enables you to get a better understanding of what your employees are learning,” he said. “Then you’re able to tailor those courses to what it is you’re looking for the employees to learn. So you have more control from that perspective.”

However, organizations should also be open to and support external upskilling, Vick said. That could mean reimbursing employees for going out and learning new skills, as well as supporting flexible schedules so that they can go to classes, conferences, or other trainings to learn these additional skills, he said.

This advice also applies to organizations looking to upskill their non-technical employees who want to move into technical roles. “Organizations should explore programs with local community colleges, tech schools, and colleges/universities in the area that are likely to have introductory classes for non-technical staff interested in pursuing technical roles in the future,” SHRM’s Schweber said.

Pair the learner with an experienced employee

The theoretical learning that’s found in online learning courses needs to be augmented with some social or relationship learning, such as teaming up the learner with a mentor, where people can learn together and from each other.

In addition, companies should ensure that the employee learning a particular skill is paired with and working side by side with someone who is proficient in that skill, said Graham Waller, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner.

“For example, the learner and the experienced employee could sit side by side coding in person or virtually, so the learner can learn by doing,” he said. “We’ve found that the combination of theoretical learning, social learning, and experiential learning is really critical.”

Don’t overlook non-technical employees

Even non-technical employees who have the opportunity to learn tech skills and apply those skills in their work will be able to do their day-to-day jobs more efficiently, said Assurance IQ’s Dixon.

And as tech employees increase their skills and take on more advanced roles in the organization, entry-level technical roles will open up. Upskilling non-technical employees so they might move into those roles is a smart move.

“There are technical roles that non-technical employees can learn and that they can be performing for your organization,” said Bentley University’s Vroman. “And they’ll probably be thrilled for the opportunity to learn some new skills.

“So ask your non-tech employees if they’re interested in growing into a technical role. They may flourish. And if they do, then they’ll be an asset for you. Plus, they’ll have loyalty to the organization for giving them that start.”

Copyright © 2024 IDG Communications, Inc.

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