When the CBI reports that 9 out of 10 employees in the UK will need to be retrained by 2030 and the World Economic Forum talks of a ‘reskilling emergency’, we know we’re facing a crisis.
The way out of that crisis is reskilling, but that requires leadership. So, how should leaders tackle the widening skills gap?
Recognizing the crisis
The skills shortage is not perhaps the main crisis on people’s minds, but Covid does bring into sharp focus where significant gaps in our capabilities lie. Whether it’s the need to staff nursing homes to care for a vulnerable aging population, the medical and scientific knowledge to tackle the virus, the logistics of vaccination and testing programs, or the agility and resources of businesses to survive and chart their way through the pandemic – all these challenges require the availability of skilled workers.
At the same time as demand for skills in some areas grow, automation and digitization are making other skills redundant. To avoid losing people from the workforce, with all the negative economic and social problems unemployment – and underemployment -creates, we need to retrain them for the skills and roles where demand is growing.
But it’s one thing to be aware of the crisis on a global level. It’s yet another to identify how it affects your organization and your staff and business prospects. Then there’s what action you should take to tackle the skills gaps and ready your people for the tasks ahead.
Those are precisely the challenges leaders face today.
How do leaders respond
One great advantage of leadership is the perspective it offers. Where others have only a partial, restricted view, those at the top are able to see across the whole organization and the environment in which it operates. However, it’s not enough just to see and recognize, you have to look beyond the current horizon and have a vision for what comes next.
Crises often throw up powerful leaders, but the complexity of the modern world does not suit heroic and autocratic styles of leadership. Personal intervention is less effective than the way today’s businesses are structured. It’s much harder to make people follow you when your workforce is so diverse, dispersed, and disrupted. For today’s businesses, you want a leadership style that trickles down and permeates all levels of the organization, not one that rests on dramatic interventions and periodic campaigns.
In a crisis, people look for reassurance. They look to leaders for empathy and understanding. They seek compassion and optimism. They want inspiration tempered with realism. And they want leaders that not only show strength but use that strength and empathy to empower others. The successful modern business leader spearheads a team and creates a team of leaders.
Communicating the vision
Leaders need to see and be seen. The first step to addressing the skills gap is to specify where the gaps lie. This needs to be communicated by leaders to their people along with a plan to address it. Above all, you need to involve your employees as they are the people most likely to be directly affected by the shortcomings in the organization and have the most at stake when it comes to reskilling.
Effective, two-way communication allows people to feel consulted and that they have a role in the organization’s development. Leaders should exhibit a readiness to embrace collaboration and a willingness to work in a spirit of openness. In that way, they can better respond to the needs and ambitions of employees.
Research shows that most employees are invested in organizations and want organizations to invest in them. Reskilling is just such an investment and results in better employee retention. Reskilling enhances individual expertise and the collective knowledge of the organization.
Think to the future
While the skills gap is a clear and present threat, tackling it requires more than a quick fix. The problem with the skills gap is that it’s a moving target. You might be aware of the skills you need in the current moment, but it’s not so easy to identify those you’ll need even in the near future.
This is particularly the case if you work in a business that is heavily reliant, or likely to be, on technology and automation. The disruption of the digital revolution is a near-constant but where and when it hits and the impact it has are less predictable.
Also, there’s the disruption caused by diversification and new players as the market changes or organizations enter new fields. If you’re inflexible and unable to adapt swiftly, there’s a danger that your troops are prepared only for the last battle, when the war has moved on and the field of combat shifts.
Get with the program
To lead your organization on an uneven path through an uncertain future, you need to have processes and programs in place that are sustainable and adaptable to change. That flexibility extends to your people too.
Because today’s job roles can change or disappear abruptly, you should include reskilling as a core feature of job specs. People have to understand that change is part of the job and to be encouraged to take on the responsibility of anticipating and embracing change. You must give people the confidence, opportunity, and resources to develop new skills and move easily into new roles.
What’s more, if you prepare people for what’s likely to happen, they’re more likely to accept change as an opportunity rather than a threat. Get the message across that reskilling is an investment in their future (within the organization) as well as the organizations.
Create a team of leaders
To introduce a program or culture of reskilling and upskilling you can’t act alone. You need to take people with you. In tackling the skills gap you’re going to need leadership and stakeholders at all levels of the organization, not just at the top.
You need to identify and promote leadership skills among managers and team-leads. Set out your ethos and approach and share it with them. It’s they who must help you activate reskilling and upskilling programs and encourage employees to participate in them.
To motivate your team of leaders, you can make empowering their own teams and enabling their staff to succeed a key performance indicator. Make sure in the way they act they embody the leadership ethos of empathy and compassion and buy into a shared vision.
Build a learning culture
Setting out a vision of the future and introducing reskilling programs are vital steps in closing the skills gap. But, as we know, technology moves on and the business landscape constantly changes. So, your response has to keep pace and be sustained.
A culture of learning recognizes reskilling and upskilling as a continuous process. A learning culture embraces both formal training and the huge variety of informal learning practices that already exist in people working in an organization.
Making learning part of the culture rather than an episodic event means that learning becomes an experience, and one to be shared. In a learning-friendly culture reskilling and upskilling happen as a matter of course.
Stimulating a learning culture across the organization means placing trust in employees to upskill themselves as their roles evolve and their careers develop. This means personalizing learning and encouraging personal control of one’s own learning. Learning becomes a central component and guiding principle of everyone’s work.
There is, however, one missing piece to this picture of the reskilling puzzle. A McKinsey report on the future of work and the widening skills gap suggests that ‘more than ten million people could be underskilled in leadership, communication, and decision making.’ In other words, to promote effective reskilling, leaders themselves need to reskill.
The programs that leaders are using to reskill the workforce must include training that focuses on leadership skills and competencies. Build a leadership strategy that’s geared for the change and disruption ahead. If you don’t close the leadership gap, you won’t be ready to bridge the general skills gap.
Reskilling is the key to successfully managing the skills crisis, but it requires active leadership to make it happen.
A culture of learning with reskilling at its heart leads to a resilient and agile organization and an invested, empowered workforce that constantly reinvents itself. With the right leadership, reskilling can turn a crisis into an opportunity.