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Why You Must Incorporate Upskilling Further Down the Organizational Chart

57% of U.S. workers want to update their skills but mid-career employees are less likely to benefit from professional development opportunities.

Should upskilling be an employee benefit? Confronted with the Great Resignation and an ongoing labor supply shortage, CEOs and other senior executives are looking with increasing interest at professional growth opportunities as a means to stem the turnover tsunami.

Now there’s some compelling research from Gallup indicating that these leaders are definitely on to something—but that they may want to broaden the audience of workers offered training programs.

Employees Really Are Seeking Opportunity

Many executives view today’s recruitment crisis as a post-pandemic phenomenon, but the problem has been brewing in our economy for a while. Since 2015, monthly job vacancies exceeded hires with only two exceptions, May and June of 2020 when the U.S. was reeling from lockdowns. As in so many others cases, COVID-19 didn’t create the labor supply shortage but it did much to exacerbate an existing issue.

The situation has businesses today scrambling for solutions. Many researchers and commentators have noted that employees who are leaving their jobs aren’t so much seeking raises as they are searching for more opportunity, flexibility, and meaning in their work life. Following on this assessment, I’ve argued that professional development is an essential component to any talent strategy.

The American Upskilling Study: Empowering Workers for the Jobs of Tomorrow, a survey of 15,000 Americans in the workforce, provides more evidence supporting this conclusion. Some big takeaways include:

  • More than half (57%) of workers are extremely or very interested in participating in an upskilling program.

  • Of those employees, 63% believe updating their skills will open more opportunity. And they’re right! Three out of four employees who participate in training programs report career advancement, most commonly with their current employer.

  • Nearly two-thirds of workers say availability of upskilling is extremely or very important in deciding to take a new job (65%) or stay at their current job (61%).

  • Nearly half (48%) of survey respondents would switch jobs to obtain skills training.

  • Seven in 10 individuals who pursued upskilling experienced a positive impact on job satisfaction. That number rises to eight in 10 when the employer provided the training during work hours.

  • Individuals who took part in employer-provided upskilling are 22 percentage points more likely to believe they’re in a good job, feeling better about their job security, opportunity, power to effect change, sense of purpose, and overall enjoyment.

In short, upskill someone and you’re likely to benefit from a more satisfied, engaged employee who will stick around and contribute. Fail to do so and you make it easy for competitors who offer professional development to lure them away.

Insufficient Access to Upskilling Programs

The above data should be enough to motivate any executive to take a fresh look at their company’s training initiatives. But where The American Upskilling Study is perhaps most revealing is in this indictment:

[The survey] suggests that those who are in the most privileged professional occupations are also those who have the most access to upskilling opportunities—in effect, upskilling programs are “skilling the skilled” rather than being offered to those who would benefit most from developing new skills and advancing their careers.

It turns out that professional development programs—like so many other employee benefits—are often reserved for the upper echelons of an organization. Read the report in full and a picture quickly emerges of employees with the ambition companies desire but a lack of access to the training programs they need to realize their aspirations.

Consider the gap Gallup uncovered between workers’ interest in learning the following skills and actual participation in programs to instill them:

  • Leadership: 31% interested; 15% have participated

  • Communication: 29% interested, 14% have participated

  • Managerial skills: 28% interested; 13% have participated

  • Project management: 23% interested; 11% have participated

And it’s not for lack of bootstrapping. Rightly concerned about opportunity, minority workers are the most likely to have attended an upskilling program within the past 12 months. In fact, 64% of Black, 63% of Hispanic, and 51% of Asian individuals in the workforce have done so. Despite income inequalities, about one-quarter of employees of color pay for those programs themselves.

Similarly, young workers, often disparaged for not fitting the traditional corporate mold, consider upskilling the third most important employee benefit, behind only health insurance and disability coverage. They’d take training over vacation time and sick leave.

At a moment when women have abandoned the workforce in droves and issues of equity and inclusion have come to the fore, we must confront the ways in which access to upskilling aligns with our values or fails in this regard. By expecting employees to seek out and invest in training programs on their own and put in extra time after already long work hours, don’t we only widen existing divides?

Offering upskilling programs on paid time during regular working hours, on the other hand, can help open doors for those who are telling us they are most interested in self-improvement and career advancement. And it’s probably less expensive than many executives think. Calculate the return on investment—increased productivity, customer satisfaction, innovation, reduction in turnover, you name it—and employers will frequently discover that such programs more than pay for themselves.

A Potential Answer

Concerns about access to professional development were among the factors leading us at Imprint Talent Readiness to embrace the Vistage Emerging Leaders program. Known for helping CEOs and senior executives grow, Vistage launched this initiative to offer upskilling more broadly, in a format and with content appropriate to mid-career individuals entering management roles.

We were attracted by the prospect of bringing together supervisors across industries to cover key topics, including leadership, project management, and communication. We felt that dedicating one day every other month away from their usual responsibilities would allow these talented employees to dig into the curriculum and feel out with a trusted group of peers how they can apply what they’re learning back on the job.

Now that our initial group is graduating after two years with us, we can attest to the transformational power of the Emerging Leaders concept. The program not only delivers results for the individuals who participate but multiplies its impact on the companies sponsoring them when managers positively affect the many employees they lead.

I’ll leave the details to another time, but if you’re interested in bringing professional development deeper into your business and communicating to your rising stars how much they are worth—and why they should stay—you might want to consider Emerging Leaders. We have an in-person group forming in RTP and a virtual group open to employees anywhere. I’d be happy to talk to you about either of them. Simply contact us.


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