Human Resources

Training in a Skills-First Organization

July 29, 2022
14 minutes

Being a skills-first organization is a joint effort between all disciplines of the organization. But as we focus on training, and how training can be a key part of a skills-first strategy, we’ll focus on what Human Resources, People Leaders and Learning and Development can do to make meaningful shifts in that direction.

Before we dive in, why are we singling out these three groups of people in the business? Let’s break it down:

  • HR Leaders: As the owners of people and culture, they are the executive at the table to drive this change from the top. The dust is settling after a tumultuous two years of the pandemic and Human Resources has a legitimate seat at the Executive table.
  • People Leaders: We know people stay in their job for their boss. So People Leaders have a strong influence on building a committed workforce. So as budgets are tightening for hiring and growth, it is critical to retain employees and support them to grow in their roles.
  • Learning and Development: Learning and training is a key component of being a skills-first organization because skills are changing at a rapid pace. Too often training is treated as a perk, when it should be approached like a strategic investment since it can be the most critical driver of employee retention and business competitiveness. Learning and Development can implement strategic learning and training programs, creating a culture of ongoing learning.

Here’s what a Learning & Development Manager can do to drive the shift to training as a strategy:

Why are we talking about training, anyway?

Employees know that they need tomorrow’s skills in today’s world. It sounds like a cliche line but it's true. LinkedIn looked at the aggregated and anonymized profile information from its 800 million global members and determined that “the skills set for jobs have changed by approximately 25% since 2015. By 2027, this number is expected to double. This means jobs are changing, even if you aren’t changing jobs, just as business demands are changing even if you’re not changing your business.” To put it in the most critical terms - employees in stagnant organizations can feel themselves being skilled out of the workforce.

With this, organizations can’t afford to treat training as anything but a strategic business activity. And not a perk, putting it on the same plane as birthday lunches, weekly Yoga, and Christmas break.

What do we mean, “training as a perk”?

When training is a perk, employees are typically allocated a budget to take whatever training they want. Guitar. Cooking class. Certified in Google Ads. Pursue the PMP certification. Whatever. On the company dime. And sometimes on the company’s time.

It’s an optional program that they can guide how they want, if they choose to tap into it. If not, the budget earmarked for that person is simply not utilized and goes away.

Training as a perk sounds great, so what’s the problem?

Sure, training as a perk seems to be a good idea because it’s:

  • Flexible - learn what you want
  • Self-driven - learn when you want

But because it's a perk, it’s all ‘if you want’.

But let’s dig a little deeper and think hard about this approach:

  • No leaders are driving it - at tilr, we are firm believers in the employee-centric workplace. We believe in employee-driven initiatives, especially when it comes to learning. But learning still needs to be leadership driven. Or at least, leadership oversight.

    Why is this so critical?

    Leadership knows and sets the company's strategic direction. So in order for learning to be worthwhile for an employees long term trajectory, or even medium term trajectory, at the organization, there needs to be leadership input into what employees ought to be learning if the employee wants to align their skills developments with the needs and growth opportunities at the organization.

  • Not aligned with growth opportunities - Because training as a perk and isn’t leadership driven, when an employee opts to learn something, that learning and training isn’t necessarily aligned with a growth opportunity in the organization.

Let’s illustrate what this means: Joe works in Customer Support. He chooses to get certified in Google Ads. Then he puts up his hand to run Google Ads campaigns for the company. But Google isn’t part of the company’s marketing mix. And there’s no plans to add it in the future. Now Joe developed a new skill, sponsored by the company but there is no opportunity to use it. Now what?

  • No process - A function of training not being owned by an Executive Sponsor, and falling as an employee perk means that nobody really “owns” this activity. When a business activity isn’t owned, it can lack process and oversight. Employees are left wondering, ‘How do I tap into this? Who should I speak to?’ They look around and there is no one to answer those questions.
  • People don’t know what to take - Without a person and process to work with to tap into the perk, and no framework for aligning learning with the company’s growth opportunities, it's up to the employees themselves to figure out what to take. Certainly an overwhelming task when your choices are to learn anything in the entire world. Literally.
  • Creates bias - Typical of situations like this is there is a sector of the employee population that taps into the training but it's not necessarily the people who need it. It’s the go-getters and high performers who utilize the training to further their careers. And good for them! That’s, at least in part, what it's for. Certainly not knocking them for figuring out how to make it work. But the problem is the underserved groups, like newcomers to our country, who are not familiar with the systems, and how to self-navigate them, and advocate for their needs in the work environment, get left behind. So training as a perk is one of those silent offenders that contributes to unbalanced opportunities in the workplace. It quietly provides a competitive edge for the privileged groups while leaving people who could really benefit from it, behind.

It’s not your fault! Really, it isn’t

If you are managing training as a perk, it's ok! At one time, it was a great added bonus to offer employees. It’s just that the world has changed, so approaches to training need to change, too.

So what’s really changing that should cause pause to reconsider the approach to training? It has a lot to do with how people navigate the labour market and what they expect out of their employment from an organization today.

There is an absolute plethora of factors contributing to this list, and why this is all so. It’s not exhaustive. But the goal is to illustrate just three of the current forces at play that are dramatically changing the labour market:

  1. There are more jobs than people so competition for talent is fierce - The data supports this claim. In the United States, the unemployment rate is at an all time low of 3.6%. According to BDC (Oct 2021) 55% of Canadian entrepreneurs are struggling to hire while at the same time 26% are struggling to retain talent. ⅔ of these businesses have reported missing out on opportunities or potential growth. It’s really hard to find people to fill seats. And employees know that.
  1. Younger adults spend less time in a job - Further to this, the average tenure tends to decrease as you go down in age. For example, 25-to-34-year-olds spend an average of 2.8 years in a position, while 18-to-24-year-olds average between eight months and 1.3 years in the same position. Generally speaking, you can assume your employees are dropping in for a year or two before a new person will be in their seat. Unless you do something creative and different to gain their commitment.
  1. Employees want to grow and be challenged at work - Employees who feel that their skills are not being put to good use in their current job are are 10 times more likely to be looking for a new job than those who feel that their skills are being put to good use. Meaning growth opportunities are critical in an employees market.

Shifting from ‘training as a perk’ to ‘training as a strategy’

Changing how we think about this approach to talent management, requires re-focusing the questions we (the collective we that we are speaking to) - Human Resources, People Leaders, and L&D leaders -  ask ourselves.

How we frame things to ourselves, like questions, are important indicator and guides about how we think about it. Which is why we’ll lay out the Frequently Asked Question and contrast it to  the question we ought to be asking to shift to a ‘training as a strategy’ mindset:

Question #1:

FAQ - How can I attract and hire top talent?
SAQ - How can I support my employees to identify their career aspirations and give them the training and tools to actualize their goals?

The instinct is to look outward for that top talent. The reality is, talent is fostered. You can find great talent on the market, they were likely coached, mentored, invested in, and fostered some previous organizations. Or, you can give that time, attention and resources to your own employees and create your own top talent.

This proactive approach is going to have a number of positive outcomes:

  • You will tap into the potential and discover the top talent in your current employee base
  • You will be a workplace that people want to stay and grow in
  • And ultimately, you will be an organization that attracts top talent. Which was your initial question in the first place

Question #2:

FAQ - What if I invest in training my employees and then they leave?
SAQ - How can I support my employees to identify their career aspirations and give them the training and tools to actualize their goals?

The data doesn’t lie - it is an employee market. The instinct might be to hoard talent and try to place a chokehold so they can’t leave. But the answer is actually counterintuitive, it's a paradox.

Invest in your employees and they will want to stay.

But even if they do leave, you are going to hire someone. And that someone may have just been invested in by their company. So your organization is benefitting from someone else’s investment. The same way that someone else is benefiting from your investment. And truly, that’s how this world works. And that’s a very good and productive cycle whereby everyone is investing in employees and as a result, we have a well trained labour force.

And besides, if we don’t invest in our employees then they will definitely want to leave.

Question #3:

FAQ - How do I offer growth and development programs when there are no roles for employees to move into?
SAQ - How can I invest in my employees skills development so they are adding value to the organization while remaining relevant in the market?

This question, or concern really, typically comes from smaller organizations with fewer employees and a looser organizational structure. The assumption in this question is employees are necessarily looking for promotions, title changes or a formal internal role change. In the skills age, what employees are actually looking for is to either deepen or broaden their skill set. That can almost certainly happen in the context of their role, especially since the skills required for roles are changing due to market changes.

What happens when training is a strategy:

It can sound like a small shift - training as a perk to training as a strategy. But it can have a profound effect on your organization, in terms of the day-to-day and how you compete over the longer term.

So what happens?

What do you have? Your people are in careers, they aren’t just in a job

How do you, as an HR Leader / People Leader / L&D Leader, feel? You are in control of what skills your people are acquiring and helping them along their career trajectory, rather than reacting to learning requests.

What’s your average day like? You’re making strategic direction about how employees spend their time in a way that’s aligned with business outcomes and growth opportunities.

What’s the status of your organization: You are considered a best place to work for employee growth

At tilr, we are obsessed with these types of ideas. And thinking about how organizations can be ready for the skills-first world. To get involved in the conversation, follow tilr on LinkedIn and subscribe to our newsletter.

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