Reskilling Employees: Is This Our Next Priority?

I saw two articles this last week on the urgent need to reskill our employees. The articles talked about the rapid and profound changes underway in the world which are driving the need to equip our workers with the new skills necessary to succeed. I am sure you have seen similar articles and I think we’re going to hear more about this urgent need to reskill our employees.

Now if you know me at all, you know that as soon as I hear a brand new phrase or as soon as everyone appears to be jumping on the bandwagon for the next new thing, I like to ask some basic questions. I suppose some would just attribute this to my being conservative, resistant to change, or just plain “old fashioned”. Naturally, I don’t think of myself that way, and in fact I like taking risks and I wholeheartedly embrace the future. That said, I think there is value sometimes in just slowing down for a minute to do a high-level “needs analysis”.

So exactly what need is driving this proposed solution? Yes, the world is changing and the pace of change continues to accelerate. And I totally endorse the notion that for the United States as a whole there is need to reskill workers whose skills have become obsolete. These are workers who had employable skills but now, through no fault of their own, there is no longer any demand for these particular skills. These workers do indeed need to learn new skills to re-enter the workforce and once again contribute to the economy. There are, of course, other workers who never were skilled to begin with. This group needs skills as well but we would not say they need to be “reskilled”. Rather they need to acquire skills for the first time. So I would agree that at the macro level there is certainly a need to both “skill” and “reskill” workers in our country. This is the province and the mission of local and regional workforce development boards throughout the country.

But how about at the company level? Do most of our organizations have this same need to reskill workers? I don’t think so. If a company is acting rationally, it is paying its employees because those employees are using their existing skills to deliver value that is at least equal to their compensation. So, existing employees have skills of value to their employer. Now a good learning and development function can find opportunities to “upskill” employees so they deliver even greater value to the organization, and the best organizations are doing this all the time through leadership training, sales training, lean processes, and a host of other great programs. The point is that upskilling is not the same as reskilling, and we have been upskilling for the last 60 years.

Might there be some employees whose skills are about to become obsolete who would be good candidates for reskilling? Absolutely. Think of those in manufacturing whose manual skills are being replaced by robotics. The question for us, then, is how many of our employees fall in this category? I don’t think the number is going to be large and certainly not large enough to make reskilling our next priority. First, some of these employees will leave voluntarily, perhaps hoping they can still apply their skill elsewhere. Second, some whose skills are becoming obsolete may not have the talent or desire to be reskilled in the skills that your organization will need moving forward. Third, some of these employees may simply not have the other attributes (aside from talent) the organization now looks for in new employees and it will be best to part ways. So, how many does this leave in a typical organization for actual reskilling? Probably not too many.

To conclude, I don’t believe reskilling is the next priority for L&D in the corporate sector. I do believe it is critically important for our country and programs need to be funded to provide these new skills. But what is true for the country is not necessarily true for individual companies which for the most part today have workers with viable skills. There are critical shortages for certain positions and there may be opportunities to reskill some existing employees for these positions, but generally the required skills are so specific that it would be unrealistic to think that many of these shortages are going to be filled by reskilled internal candidates. So, is reskilling important? Yes, but more so for the economy as a whole than for most individual organizations.

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