At a glance
Among the more serious effects of the pandemic on the employment landscape across the globe is the acute skills shortage.
In Australia, for instance, unemployment is at 3.5 per cent – its lowest rate in almost 50 years. As a result, finding the right person for a role is challenging. RMIT University’s research report, Ready, Set, Upskill, found that 58 per cent of employers reported increased difficulty recruiting for available positions.
While the UK’s skills shortage began with Brexit, it has worsened since the pandemic, with 68 per cent of SMEs and 86 per cent of large organisations reporting skills shortages. Further, 72 per cent of organisations say staff are feeling the burden of an additional workload caused by skills shortages, and 78 per cent of organisations report reduced output, profitability or growth.
When the pandemic hit, “the priority for many organisations was to adapt to the situation and survive in the face of uncertainty”, says Claire Hopkins, interim CEO at RMIT Online. “For many, this meant refocusing their efforts towards fewer training and skills development opportunities.”
For employers seeking to attract and retain staff in a competitive labour market, upskilling management is a critical, yet underused, tool.
“Investing in our managers can improve the entire ecosystem of the organisation and can even prevent valued employees from leaving,” says Hopkins.
Boosting the b-suite
She points to the 2019 AIM Leadership Survey, which found that more than 72 per cent of Australian workers left their jobs due to poor leadership, with communication skills and emotional intelligence identified as the critical skills gaps among leaders.
Also in short supply in the current market are digital literacy and technical, customer service and problem-solving skills. “Deloitte’s Digital Pulse report revealed that Australia needs at least 156,000 new technology workers by 2025, and 87 per cent of jobs now require digital skills,” says Hopkins.
“Additionally, the World Economic Forum has said one in two workers will need reskilling, and those remaining in their current roles will need to update 40 per cent of their skill set to adapt to the changing labour market.”
An Amazon Web Services report on digital skills in Asia-Pacific indicates that digital upskilling is an urgent priority. Singapore, for example, will need 1.2 million more digital workers by 2025 – 50 per cent more than it has today – to remain competitive.
If addressing this skills deficit “was important before the pandemic, it’s become critical now”, she says. “With technology continuing to drive how we communicate and come together, upskilling leadership in these areas can help inspire, build trust and foster strong teamwork while creating a positive workplace culture.”
Yet, the middle management cohort – or B-suite – is often overlooked when it comes to training opportunities.
“Unfortunately, they get the dregs of whatever leadership budget there is,” says Hopkins. “Senior leaders usually get first dibs,” she says, followed by first-time leaders and diversity programs.
While upskilling the B-suite may seem cost-prohibitive on paper, overlooking their learning and development needs comes at an even greater cost.
“Those mid-level leaders who have been left to their own devices for 20 years, without any development whatsoever, are the ones carrying the worst habits, the greatest responsibility, and have the greatest impact on your culture and performance,” she says.
How to run effective training programs
There is no simple, one-size-fits-all solution to upskilling a workforce.
“The biggest challenge for any organisation is catering to diverse staff learning preferences and requirements to get the best out of each employee,” says Hopkins. “Training of all types is a two-way conversation, and, to be effective, employers must be receptive to the needs and feedback of their employees.”
Organisations should consider offering a range of learning opportunities – “a mix of structured, flexible, totally or partly online, and even bespoke courses”, she says. Learning and development investment is most effective when it is targeted and aligns with strategic goals.
“Effective training... happens when companies identify their skills gaps and offer employees training that addresses these needs with practical content from industry experts connected to the market,” Hopkins says.
Leadership buy-in is also essential. “The leadership team has to be involved with the team’s career development,” says Hopkins, who highlights the need to “make training part of the company’s culture with leaders helping to demonstrate its value”.
Hopkins says mid-level managers typically prefer “hands-on experiential learning opportunities. They respond really well in peer-to-peer environments.”
In many instances, Hopkins sees managers who have done “quite a bit of training, but, for some reason, they’re not applying everything they’ve learned” – which is why the training programs her company runs focus on changing mindsets before addressing methodology.
Practical application is another critical component of training programs. “We run a series of experiments to help leaders to work out which tools in which scenario feel authentic for them and get them the results that they want, and those are the tools that they’ll carry through the rest of their career,” Hopkins says.
On the ground
REA Group is a global digital real estate advertising company that performs consistently well on employer review websites such as Glassdoor.
Contributing to its strong performance as a preferred employer is a culture that prioritises learning. “The fast-paced and digital nature of their business means they have to ensure skill development and training are a priority,” says Hopkins.
During the pandemic, REA Group saw a spike in interest in learning and development among its workforce. In response, the organisation scaled up its virtual learning platform, known as REA University.
One obstacle preventing staff from participating in training was a lack of time. To address this roadblock, the organisation ensured training was flexible, accessible and catered to a range of learning styles.
Managers were critical to the process, says Hopkins. “People leaders play a key role in the engagement of their teams, so providing them with the appropriate support tools, training and forums for them to assist in leading teams is vital.”