Since the pandemic many organizations have explored a shift in hiring and people development, moving from emphasizing candidates’ formal degrees to focusing on specific skills development and certifications.
With the dramatic increase in the average cost of a college degree in the USA—average per-student annual cost is now above $35,000—it is clear that meeting staffing needs while also supporting DEI efforts requires that organizations consider an alternative to the traditional option of requiring a degree for most positions.
Additionally, the digital transformation that accelerated during the height of the pandemic, along with extraordinarily high numbers of people leaving or changing jobs, the so-called “Great Resignation” or “Reshuffle,” has sharpened attention on growing skills gaps within existing employee populations.
Responding to these needs, businesses, especially learning and development (L&D) professionals, have leaned in, developing skills-focused learning and training initiatives to meet the short- and long-term needs of their organizations. This can have tremendous benefit for both the companies and the individuals.
While it’s easy to become enthusiastic about the potential benefits of focusing on specific, needed skills, it’s also prudent to be aware of potential pitfalls—and explore intentional processes and checks that can help learning leaders avoid these three common unintended consequences.
1. Commoditization of skills
Reducing an outcome to individual hard skills—and training many people on those individual skills— frequently leads to a commoditization of those skills. This can cause a lack of respect for and appreciation of the value of that skill.
For example, graphic designers have a creative eye, learn multiple software packages and media, incorporate business acumen, and can usually provide multiple approaches to solve a problem. However, with the rise of easy-to-learn tools like Microsoft Publisher and, more recently, Canva, the recognition of the value a graphic designer brings to the table has decreased. Yet what the average person is able to generate with these tools offers only a small fraction of the true set of skills used by a quality designer.
The problem here, of course, is that the mechanical act of creating a design is only one skill among many. Experienced professionals incorporate a range of skills and experience—not just one specific skill or tool. The outcome of any process or project depends on quality inputs, and there are always more than one.
Caveat for learning leaders
As organizations move toward digital transformation and leverage AI, learning leaders need to think about the broader business environment when developing skills-focused training. Before investing time and effort in learning a skill—or asking the same of your employees—consider whether that skill is likely to be targeted for automation. This is most often true of hard skills that lead to a repeatable outcome or consist of standardized, repeatable actions. Once a machine can do the work or a large percentage of it, companies will not pay as much for humans to do it—and may eventually stop employing people to do it at all. Thus, skills-focused training should not focus too heavily on activities that may have limited lifespan, decrease in actual value (read: paycheck) to the learner, or face a roadblock for continued advancement in the coming years.
When even creative functions like graphic design are subject to commoditization, this is a real concern.
Until the automation is in place, you will still need people to do the work. However, how many people are trained and how much time they dedicate to learning should be carefully weighed against the long-term value and impact of people mastering those skills.
2. Lack of mobility or growth
Historically, workers may be asked or offered opportunities to take on projects that are beyond their core job descriptions. While often not nobly intended, this does provide opportunities for continual growth and learning, and it exposes the employee to other parts of the organization. Employees in many organizations can ask for stretch assignments and seek training and projects which could help them advance their short- and long-term career path goals.
A potential challenge in an environment where learning is focused around skills, and where teams are assigned based around what skills are needed, is that the people who acquire specific skills may be in high demand for projects needing those skills. The natural result is limiting their ability and opportunity to take on varied projects, explore new learning opportunities that would enable them to grow other skills, or explore different roles.
If, for example, someone is skilled at solving bugs in website code, that person will regularly be assigned to debugging projects. The more experience they have solving this problem, the more skilled they become, making them an even greater asset in that capacity for the business. Then, the company could change technology, making this individual’s skills obsolete (or of quite limited use). Or the person could wish to develop a broader skill set and grow to resent being limited to a narrow set of responsibilities and feeling that they have no growth path—a common reason workers cite for changing jobs.
Caveats for learning leaders
Without an intentional plan and processes in place, workers with currently needed skills are likely to be pigeonholed into a narrow role that utilizes the desired skill. This can leave them with little opportunity to learn and develop other skills. This is both limiting for the individual—their focus on meeting immediate needs can prevent those individuals from continually developing new skills for down-the-road use—and it’s bad for organizations.
A specific skill can—and does—become obsolete; this is happening faster than ever. The most resilient companies meet current needs while also attempting to identify future skills and proactively close skills gaps. A Skillsoft report noted in 2020 that “According to IT decision-makers, skills gaps will cost employers up to 416 hours and over $22,000 per employee, per year.”
This is not only an IT issue, either. To retain employees, IT or otherwise, learning leadership needs to institute intentional safeguards to ensure that people are not limited to the skills on which they have already been trained and that employees are regularly supported as they train in additional skills.
Employees want this, and it benefits the company. As Skillsoft’s report notes: “Some IT decision-makers do not authorize training even when it’s built into their budget—41% had formal training available but decided to forgo it. Nearly 20% of IT professionals say management does not see a tangible benefit from training. That’s a huge disconnect, especially since IT pros have a strong desire to learn and grow their careers.” And again, workers who are dissatisfied or see no growth path are more likely to leave.
This also highlights the need to foster a learning culture throughout the company as a whole. Learning leaders should prioritize working, department by department, to reinforce the connection between the encouragement of and support for ongoing learning and solving hiring and retention challenges, as well as specific business imperatives.
Learning leaders must convince stakeholders—using solid data—that they are helping those leaders solve their challenges, rather than promote learning as a value unto itself. To these department leaders, the pressures and constraints of delivering results frequently outweighs consideration of their employees’ long-term growth.
3. Hierarchy of skills
Even with a shift to skills-focused training, not every job can abandon the degree. Doctors and lawyers, for example, will continue to require undergraduate and professional degrees. Those with these degrees generally will continue to earn more than those without these degrees and will still generally hold the positions of real power in an organization.
As the gulf widens between those with degrees and those without, learning leaders—indeed all corporate leaders—will need to be intentional about how to address this innate imbalance and any resulting differences in consideration for hiring, retention, promotion, and succession, especially as it impacts the organization’s ability to increase diversity and inclusivity.
Additionally, when roles are reduced to individual skills to be mixed-and-matched over coming years, the value of certain skills may come to be promoted or perceived as more important than others. This dis-incentivizes people to learn some skills, though these skills may remain necessary to the success of the organization.
Caveats for learning leaders
When shifting to skills-focused learning, a key question is what we consider “skills.” Another is the level of competence needed in a particular job role. To answer these questions, learning leaders can partner with hiring managers, as well as with talent development and HR, and definitions may vary across industries or even across roles within an industry or organization.
With this big-picture focus, learning leaders can be instrumental in designing targeted skills-development programs to fill existing gaps or increase speed-to-productivity of new hires.
In devising a skills-focused training strategy, a learning leader will need to consider the impact of accuracy, frequency, time to productivity, and the financial value of a particular action, in order to develop appropriate learning content for each stage. For some skills or job roles, maybe capability or knowledge is sufficient, rather than the highest level of mastery, “unconscious competence.” In addition, learning leaders should provide more training focus on skills that are unlikely or unable to be automated than on those that are likely to be automated.
Finally, learning leaders must consider the value or priority placed on certifications and other credentials: Are there consistent measures and understandings within the organization of what different certifications represent? Establishing a standardized framework will help everyone in the organization understand and manage expectations.
An additional caveat is to avoid the temptation to view skills development in a linear or hierarchical way. Rather, consider the idea of skills as concentric circles, where each new expansion represents the way a learner’s experience augments the initial knowledge transfer. Alternatively, imagine skills development as a Venn diagram, where skills, capabilities, and competencies overlap and intersect.
This overlapping of skills, experience, creativity, and curiosity is where the real value, impact, and opportunity from skills-focused learning appears. It also honors the individuality of each learner, ensures recognition of the value of developing or mastering a skill, encourages the constant learning of new skills versus being pigeonholed into a single narrow role, and provides the innovation that companies eagerly desire.
L&D professionals are on the front lines of creating skills assessments, developing learning resources for those skills, and distributing those resources throughout their organizations. Amid the pressure to deliver these needed solutions, it is important that learning leaders take a moment to consider the unintended consequences that can occur with a transition to a skills-focused workplace.
Skills-focused hiring and people development are needed, but critical change management is required to facilitate respect throughout the transformation of the hiring and promotion paths of those who focus on the skills vs who have gone traditional routes—and avoid the pitfalls of commoditizing skills, pigeonholing workers, or creating false hierarchies.
Learning leaders will need to hone evaluation methods beyond confirming knowledge transfer. At scale, L&D will need to evaluate and reassess employees’ skills and performance against the needs of the organization. They’ll need to work with organizational leaders to avoid the emergence of a hierarchy of skills that celebrates more visible skills at the cost of less recognized, but still essential, skill areas.
Advocating for a future-forward approach to developing skills, both in determining how deeply someone needs to be trained and in fostering interesting mixes of skills which will combine in unique ways, can move Learning into a greater leadership role in the organization as a whole. It can also help advance employees’ individual satisfaction and goals.
Awareness and consideration of these concerns will better equip learning leaders to build in safeguards against potential pitfalls and support the development and growth of their companies and their people.
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