Why is upskilling so hard?

Despite the benefits, employers are lacking when it comes to skills development

Why is upskilling so hard?

While many recent surveys have shown that providing training opportunities for employees is an excellent tool for attraction and retention, a new survey shows that employers are lacking in this area.

Only 21 per cent of respondents to a survey by done by D2L, a training organization, feel confident there are enough skills in-house in the company to achieve future growth — compared to 47 per cent for U.S. businesses.

It’s a new type of social contract, says Malika Asthana, manager of strategy and public affairs for Canada at D2L in Toronto.

“People of all generations — particularly people who are a bit earlier in their careers, gen Z and millennials — are interested in opportunities that will enable them to grow and see a path through themselves in the organization. And investment in skills development, on an ongoing basis, is a way to cultivate that trust with workers, and to say, ‘We are invested in your growth and you’re not just a worker for us.’

“It’s an easy thing to invest in to make sure that people feel that they’re growing in an organization.”

The company spoke to a representative sample size of 400 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMES, defined as those with 20 to 499 employees) business leaders and employees in Canada and the U.S. in December, and it found that there was a shortage of knowledge about upskilling.

“Over the last decade or so, Canada has really hollowed out in terms of our national statistical reporting on some of these things but there’s a lot of anecdotal research that says that Canadian employers are not investing as much as U.S. employers, and that we’re falling behind in terms of productivity,” says Asthana.

The survey also showed that while there was a good amount of internal training being conducted, employer support for outside or external education needs work. Twelve per cent of Canadian employees did this type of schooling in the past 12 months, despite almost three-quarters expressing interest (72 per cent).

“Although almost half of the employers are providing internal training for job-specific skills development, only one in three are actually providing support for training opportunities happening outside of the workplace,” says Asthana.

When asked why this training wasn’t done, cost was the number one reason for 43 per cent of respondents, while other concerns such as being too busy outside of work was cited. “The uptake is low, and the offering is low, and yet recruitment and retention are such a big challenge so there’s definitely a disconnect there,” she says.

Malika Asthana

“Canadian employees are more than twice as likely to complete training on their own time outside of work. They’re more than three times as likely to pay for the full cost of training themselves and only 42 per cent of Canadian employees report that their direct supervisors or managers are involved in helping them pursue professional development goals, compared to 64 per cent of U.S. employees that report the same.”

When further probed as to why these organizations didn’t prioritize outside learning, “one of the biggest barriers for investing more financially or offering more time off for employees to take external training was this perception in both Canada and the U.S. that internal training and on-the-job learning is already sufficient: ‘We don’t actually need to be investing more,'” says Asthana.

Many managers are looking for more training to better handle new remote workforce, according to a recent survey.

Investment in resilience

“Some of the things we talk about are the need to actually recognize that investing in skills development is an investment in your organization’s resilience. No, you can’t actually predict every single skill you’re going to need years in advance, but you do need to be able to think about the infrastructure you can build to make it easier for employees,” says Asthana.

Governments also have a role in helping these organizations, she says.

“We also talk about the need for governments at all levels to be the convening force that can help develop a strategy that brings all stakeholders — whether it’s employers or higher education institutions, associations, unions, etc. — together to talk about a strategy for workforce development and workforce innovation. Don’t just go off and tell people to develop programs and then have a piecemeal approach. The only way to do it at scale is with a national strategy for workforce innovation.”

When asked about the biggest HR challenges, recruiting talented employees (30 per cent) and retaining them (22 per cent) come out as the top two concerns in the survey.

HR professionals need to ask what skills are needed in order for employees to align with the corporate mission, says Asthana as they become “strategically important.”

“That is a huge lesson for HR to really do that skills audit of what’s needed for future growth, so that when you are answering the question in a future survey: ‘Do you feel confident in having the skills and talent to grow in the next three years?’ you are able to answer, ‘Very confident.’ I think that’s the goal for that type of circumstance.”

Read more: In order to cope with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, managers at the Sunwing Travel Group were given extra training in resilience strategies to help them and employees cope with the stress of working.

As well, policy documents and simple guidelines around learning need to be developed and implemented, she says.

“Thinking creatively and holistically about it; it’s not just about designing some kind of concrete policy with financial support and time off to facilitate external training.”

Considering the labour shortage, the timing is right to have these types of conversations, says Asthana.

“The timing for this is really important, not just because we’ve gone such a long time in Canada without the data we’d need to be making these decisions, but also because of the tightness of the labour market. This conversation needs to be happening now because we have this strategic opportunity here.”

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