Reskilling—Are We Thinking About This Clearly?

It seems that “reskilling” is on everyone’s mind these days. How often do we hear about an organization’s need to reskill its workforce for the future? And, this isn’t just coming from L&D—it is also coming from senior leaders. So, reskilling is the shiny new object that is attracting a lot of attention; and as my regular readers know, the brighter that new object, the more skeptical I become that we are on the right path.

Before sharing my doubts about reskilling, let me first acknowledge that there are situations where it makes perfect sense. For example, suppose that a manufacturing plant is going to be modernized in six months. The current employees do not have the skills to run the new automated plant but some would be interested in learning. I think this would be a perfect case for reskilling so the company can keep its existing employees who are loyal and committed to the success of the organization. By all means, provide the training for the new skills they will need to succeed. And, if there are not enough positions in the newly automated factory, provide new skills for the remaining employees to fill other positions in the company. So, I don’t have any issue with this use of reskilling where specific, existing employees need new skills to do a different job because their current job is about to be eliminated.

Let’s explore the other end of the reskilling spectrum, where I do have serious doubts about our current path. Some organizations are looking ahead and trying to define what skills will be needed in the future, often five to 10 years in the future.

In my experience, it is sometimes difficult to get good direction and consensus on skills needed in the short term (like for the next year), yet alone for the future. I have a hard time imagining how the process will work to define skills needed in five to 10 years. Who will L&D rely on to define these needs? Department heads, the CFO, CEO, governing body, a consulting company? How good is their forecast likely to be? Do these people have a track record for forecasting skills or will this be their first time? I can say from my experience at Caterpillar that making accurate long-term economic sand sales forecasts was virtually impossible. So, in a fast-changing world, I am skeptical of our ability to accurately forecast skills five to 10 years out.

Even if we could accurately forecast skills, does it make any sense to start training for those skills today? The assumption here is that the skills are not needed today but will be needed in the future. Given what we know about how quickly knowledge dissipates and about the importance of immediately applying what was learned, why would we start training now for a future need? Wouldn’t it be better to wait until just before the need actually exists and then offer the training, combined with the opportunity to immediately apply it and receive reinforcement from management?

Now, at this point, some may say that the time frame is not five to 10 years but instead just a few years—maybe even just one year ahead. Furthermore, some may say that leaders can readily identify the skills their current employees have and that these skills will be even more in demand in the future. Examples of this may be processes like design thinking, adaptability, communication and teaming. In this case, we can use our standard needs analysis and performance consulting process to identify the skills gaps and address them. Now however, I would contend that we are no longer talking about reskilling, but instead traditional training.

I believe reskilling connotes new skills that are not needed in one’s job today, but will be needed for a different job either today or in the future. And, I think it makes perfect sense to provide these new skills to existing employees whenever there is a good fit and when the need is immediate. I don’t believe we should spend much time trying to identify skills that will not be needed for five to 10 years down the line; and I certainly don’t believe we should start training for those skills today. Instead, let’s focus our reskilling efforts on those employees who need (or want) to find a new job in the next 12 months and who require new skills. For the vast majority of employees who simply want to keep learning to improve in their present position, let’s just continue to call this “training”.

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