No longer just ‘nice-to-have’—inside the demand for workplace learning

As the war for talent rages, “upskilling” and “reskilling” appear to be moving beyond buzzwords to a real focus for business. A new report takes a deep look at the trend.

As the war for talent rages, “upskilling” and “reskilling” appear to be moving beyond buzzwords to a real focus for business. Companies are rethinking how they hire, train, and promote employees—and education’s role in all three—according to a new report from Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy.

“Our interviews overwhelmingly suggested that talent-related issues are at the top of employers’ strategic agendas,” wrote Sean Gallagher, executive director of the center, and his co-authors, Rashid Mosley and Tova Sanders.

That finding is consistent with other real-time research like Deloitte’s “2021 CEO Priorities Survey,” and a series of billion-dollar training and education investments by Fortune 500’s like Amazon, Walmart, Target, and Waste Management.

The big idea: The center’s research focused on deep interviews with more than three dozen leaders in human resources and employee learning and development at major companies in the technology, manufacturing, and healthcare industries. Almost across the board, interviewees talked about an intensifying “war for talent,” and as a result, an increased focus on building talent from within rather than simply vying for new employees on the open market.

In part, that is a response to acute worker shortages caused by health concerns, challenges in securing childcare and elder care, and a wave of retirements amid the pandemic. It’s also driven by rapid changes in the nature of jobs and the skills they require, and by what corporate leaders see as a larger shift—particularly among younger generations—in expectations and priorities around work.

Those society-wide shifts have combined with advances in technology and the design of digital learning that make education investments—in particular short, targeted training or microlearning—both more feasible and attractive to employers.  

“For a long time learning was this nice-to-have, no one took it seriously,” Shelly Holt, chief people officer at Payscale, told the researchers. “And all of a sudden, there’s this case for change that you need to be re-skilling your workforce to meet the needs of the 4th industrial revolution.”

‘Learning in the flow of work’

Read a Q&A with the report’s authors on what the trends they identified mean for colleges and other providers interested in working with employers.

Breaking it down:

The center’s interviews, combined with existing survey data, found a major shift around talent acquisition and talent development. While hiring and employee learning have historically been siloed, many organizations realize they must be more closely integrated—as two sides of the same coin. This is playing out in two important ways:

  • The first is driven by business needs. Companies are investing more heavily in employee learning as they struggle with talent shortages and try to meet changing skill needs.
  • The second is driven by employee demands. Americans are expecting more from their bosses, and many workers—led by millennials and Gen Z—now expect employers to invest in their long-term growth.

Learning has become the new ping pong table, said Holt. “No one cares about the ping pong table anymore because they’re not in the office building. They want career development.”

‘Learn, practice, apply’

A third trend, this one in how learning is delivered, could be the unifying force—microlearning.

Upskilling: When it comes to upskilling to meet business needs, the researchers found that employers are increasingly focused on bite-sized training, typically delivered digitally, that develops skills they need immediately.

“The way people learn has fundamentally changed—people want access when they need it,” Holt told the researchers. “They don’t want to go to a class—and you’ll likely never take that back and apply it. Where modern learning organizations have shifted to is: we need to create an environment where you learn, you practice, and you apply it. And it’s bite-sized…we want them to be learning all the time.”

Education as a benefit: That dovetails with changes some companies are making to tuition assistance programs, which historically have provided free or low-cost college as a benefit for employees regardless of whether the education is related to the company’s work.

Those education benefit programs typically support access to bachelor’s and master’s degrees—and the HR leaders were most likely to mention them in the context of recruitment and retention, not upskilling. However, the researchers see a potential for that to shift as major platforms that help companies manage benefits begin to offer micro-credentialing options that could both meet immediate skill needs and stack into degrees.

“Employees are seeking continuous learning opportunities, but still see the value of an earned degree, as do employers,” said Sanders, co-author and associate teaching professor at Northeastern.

Guild Education, for example, has seen a 149 percent increase in applications for certificate programs over the course of the pandemic—and the number of active students in short-form offerings has grown ten-fold from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020.

“We’re rethinking the way we’re doing tuition reimbursement to include certification programs. We do that with some, but it can be a challenge,” an anonymous interview participant said. “We’re looking at reimbursements not just from academic institutions… it can’t be static.”

It seems increasingly likely, the report asserts, that “in the years to come, both employers’ and workers’ energy and investments may coalesce around microcredentials as a meeting place of both job-related skills needs and as a pathway to potential degrees.”

Digging into company needs

The researchers also probed both companies’ specific upskilling needs and how they are working to define them within job roles.

What they need:

  • Developing first-time managers and sales positions was a priority for a large share of the organizations studied.
  • Digital skills were frequently cited as an important need across all jobs. But across all levels of the workforce, “human” skills were of the greatest priority given the growing pace of technology adoption and automation.
  • Leadership skills, in particular influence, collaboration, problem-solving, and communication, were frequently cited—consistent with recent surveys and other assessments of in-demand skills.

Those human skills, talent leaders said, are not only desperately needed—but are particularly challenging to intentionally develop.

“Tech skills can generally be acquired,” Jen Hecht, vice president of people operations at RStudio, a software firm, told the researchers. “You can send someone to a camp or class on Linux skills, for example, if that’s the gap—but getting someone to feel they’re comfortable leading and managing, that’s a more ambiguous target to hit.

How they’re doing it:

Leading-edge companies are breaking down roles into skill sets and categories to create clearer internal pathways, identify skills gaps, and provide employees with the education and training necessary to stay in their existing roles or move into new ones.

“The world is no longer linear and predictable,” Nuno Gonclaves, Global Head of Strategic Capability at Mars, Inc., told the researchers. “How do we deconstruct the jobs to really understand what’s inside? How can we reconstruct the jobs with a future in mind? How will these jobs be impacted by digital, automation, machine learning? We know most jobs will be different, others disappear, and others will be created—and we want to be ready and develop our associates to thrive in this multi-linear world.”

Who they turn to for help: 

First and foremost, employers are looking for providers—whether traditional colleges, learning platforms, or workforce development programs that are agile and can deliver.

The top criteria for Ascension Seton, a healthcare employer: “A radical focus on outcomes.”

“Every organization I know of says they want to be measured by the number of classes and participants as part of their effort. That’s great as a tactic or output: I want outcomes or goals,” Geronimo Rodriguez, Texas chief advocacy officer for Ascension Seton, told the researchers. “For example, what educational certificate or degree are they getting, and frankly what’s the job they’re getting hired into? Otherwise, we’re failing the individual and our community’s quality of life.

  • The two providers referenced most frequently by companies were the subscription offering LinkedIn Learning and the platform Degreed.
  • In the leadership development space, ExecOnline—an online learning provider that brings courses and content from top business schools to corporate clients—was also mentioned often.

Many of the key partnerships referenced by HR leaders centered on talent acquisition, rather than employee skill development.

  • A number of executives highlighted the potential of apprenticeship programs, cooperative education, and other work-integrated learning models.

Some interviewees were invested in local college partnerships for both hiring and employee development, but many others commented on the lack of speed or nimbleness in working with colleges and universities. The colleges that are most successful in partnering with corporations around upskilling work company by company to understand their specific needs, the researchers said.

To make that work more efficient, Sanders said, colleges could engage with multiple organizations in the same industry and then validate the skills that seem to be universal for a specific role. Mosley, an associate teaching professor at Northeastern who also worked on the research, said that colleges can also gain an edge by focusing on applied learning.

“Companies are considering how the skills learned are applied in a real-work situation,” he said. “In other words, are employees learning to translate the skills into their work environment? Do they gain the experience of practice? Some well-known, go-to-providers cannot verify this critical detail.”

But, the researchers said, there’s no way to escape the fact that colleges that are interested in working with companies to address their upskilling needs are going to have to get specific.

“What companies are doing here is highly customized to their businesses and contexts,” said Gallagher. “It’s important to keep in mind the distinction between generally aligning curriculum and graduates’ outcomes with hiring needs, and the even harder work of creating and delivering content and instruction that’s mapped to rapidly changing business needs.”

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