"Cardinal rules" make or break upskilling and reskilling success

Employers are now making unprecedented investments in upskilling and reskilling, but without following some "cardinal rules" they risk a low return.

James Mcilvena
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Spurred last year by COVID-related pivots, employers are now keen to "solve the retention problem", but programs' success levels can vary greatly, says Lee Hecht Harrison ANZ managing director James Mcilvena.

What sets apart organisations with effective upskilling and reskilling programs is "the communication piece", he tells HR Daily.

After a bit of soul searching, organisations that haven't achieved their desired results often find they haven't followed some cardinal rules.

The first of these is to be clear with employees about the selection process, the necessary investment of time, and relevant policies.

This includes, for example, "what are [employees] allowed to do within work hours, what do they need to sign up to do outside of work hours?" Mcilvena says. Regular check-ins along the way are also important, as they help prevent high dropout rates.

The second rule is about providing clarity around outcomes.

There mustn't be an ambiguous, 'if you get through this you can apply for jobs'. It's not good enough to get people to fully commit to these things without any clear guidance around what they can expect.

It doesn't have to be a promise of, 'you will go up two pay grades and we promise you this job', but it does need to be something as specific as, 'this is part of the future strategy in the business. We are going to ringfence some roles for the people who complete this course to apply for, and everyone's guaranteed an interview'.

Having clear outcomes helps keep people invested and motivated, he says, noting that reskilling journeys, for example, typically require upwards of 40 hours of time investment from the employee, and cost employers anything from $3,500 to $20,000 per employee.

The starting point

Clear communication starts with good workforce planning. You need to have done an analysis first to be able to communicate that to employees. There must be an understanding of what your return on investment is going to be.

The argument that employers should invest in reskilling and upskilling extends beyond the idea that "it's the right thing to do"; rather, it delivers intangible benefits like bolstering the employee value proposition and reputation of an organisation.

There are also the cold hard facts of return on investment, and employers can implement these strategies to minimise recruitment costs, or to fill critical roles.

Alternatively, employers are turning to reskilling for "at-risk populations", where it can ward off future redundancies.

Understanding your workforce analytics, understanding your return on investment, and what you expect out of the program is absolutely critical.

If you don't understand the purpose for the program, then it's highly unlikely it's going to deliver results not just for the organisation but for the people.

Mixed interest in upskilling

Interest in upskilling can vary greatly among different cohorts within the same organisation.

It comes back again to communication around how much they either personally feel or understand that their role is at risk, and how much they are wanting to be a 'passenger' in whatever happens next, versus being proactive.

Some employees are "incredibly proactive" while others choose not to be so, even if they understand that they are at risk.

There are also segments within organisations where employees outgrow roles quickly, such as outbound-sales-type roles, where interest in upskilling is usually quite high.

People look at it as an entry to the organisation, but they're sitting in those roles with one, two degrees behind them and ambitions of doing something more.

Renewable not replaceable

More and more employers are moving towards viewing employees as "renewable and not replaceable".

But the 'renewable' strategy is "hard work" because it "takes a lot of thinking and guts" and other elements, such as workforce planning, must be lined up.

Too many employers still have a 'replaceable' strategy, though this is heading towards a "tipping point".

More put it in the 'too-hard basket' versus those who are there right now, but everyone wants to chat about it. Everyone knows it's a problem. It's that delta between recognition of a problem and the action to resolve it.

This article was originally published on hrdaily.com.au, 12 October 2021.

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