Last reviewed 23 October 2019

There is much talk today about skills gaps and how, if they are not plugged, considerable harm will be done to the economy because organisations will cease being successful. Numerous studies predict large shifts in what skills will be in demand, yet there is a noticeable lack of what to do to plug them. However, two recent published studies do offer some useful advice, as Judith Christian-Carter reveals here.

“Organisations are facing unprecedented levels of change as they seek to remain competitive and gain new markets. One of the critical challenges facing organisations is the acquisition of skills.” (Towards Maturity, 2019*). Various studies show the percentage risk to jobs of automation, eg 38% of jobs in America, 30% in the UK, 21% in Japan and 35% in Germany are at risk. Another study shows that 8.3 million jobs will be lost in industry in Western Europe against 10 million new jobs being created in the services sector by 2035. Such shifts in the demand for skills — and especially for different skills — are extremely large, and have never been experienced before in employment history.

The main question for Learning and Development (L&D) in all organisations is, therefore, what L&D needs to do in order to ensure that the organisation and its workforce are not at risk of being misaligned and unprepared when it comes to plugging skills gaps. This in turn, may lead to the question of whether the current approaches to learning are capable of building learning experiences and environments where individuals can reflect, collaborate and experiment in order to up-skill and re-skill, so that the entire workforce is both aligned and prepared for increasingly complex and ambiguous shifts in the world of work.

The main challenges

When asked about the most pressing challenges in coping with increasingly diverse, complex and challenging skill gaps, some L&D professionals revealed the following to four separate but related questions.

  1. Q: Why is it so complex and challenging to keep up with skills?

    A: A lack of data, insights and evidence-based proposals; a lack of digital skills and ability to keep pace with technology; a lack of time engagement and budget.

  2. Q: What is the biggest challenge stopping you from developing capabilities within your organisation?

    A: Understanding what capabilities are needed, when and how to deliver these; the level of complexity; leaders, managers and individuals not understanding their own/teams’ skills gap.

  3. Q: What kind of data/insights are you picking up on capability?

    A: We collect transactional data but do not analyse it (42%); we collect transactional and behavioural data, analyse it and share it with leaders in order to make decisions (11%); no one collects transactional and behavioural insights linked to other people-based insights.

    Q: Considering the risks, what are the key priorities?

  4. A: To review capabilities continuously and to encourage teams to develop skills outside of their competency areas; to change the language we use with our stakeholders; to understand what a learning issue is by investigating root causes rather than superficial issues.

Compared to the skills gaps faced in the past, those of today and in the future will require new thinking and alternative approaches to how they are plugged.

Digital skills gaps

Perhaps one of the most noticeable shifts over the last few years is that of the use of digital technologies. In order to embrace the digital technologies that are gradually transforming entire organisations and industries, the workforce will have to become adaptable, flexible and multiskilled. However, as a result of the pace of digital change, the true extent of this shift remains unknown, which means that organisations need to act now to ensure that a robust foundation is established of the technical digital skills which are required in order to create and maintain success.

A report by the Open University** shows that:

  • 9 in 10 organisations across Great Britain currently lack digital skills

  • 37% of workplace roles are expected to alter significantly in the next five years

  • 3 in 10 (28%) employers are looking to hire in digitally-skilled talent

  • organisations have increased their training budgets by 13% to increase digital skills.

These results support the belief that the UK currently faces a digital skills gap because there are insufficient workers who have the necessary skills to meet the demands of what is, essentially, a digitally powered economy. The shortage of digital skills is impacting organisations in terms of profitability, competitiveness, agility/adaptability, ability to implement time/cost-saving technology and productivity, now and will continue to do so in the future.

Plugging digital skills gaps

Many organisations in Great Britain are currently hiring new employees and paying a premium to acquire workers with the skills in demand, on the basis that they can get access to a raft of digital skills quickly, and as and when they need them. However, this is also coupled with having serious doubts about whether such a solution is a sustainable and an affordable long-term strategy. There appears to be a lack of a coherent long-term approach to plugging digital skills gaps within UK organisations.

Not unsurprisingly, The Open University believes that the way in which to bridge the digital skills gap both now and in the future is to adopt a model of lifelong learning. “The Open University has long believed that companies must invest more in enabling their workforce to re-skill in the wake of digital disruption. Ultimately, we require a holistic solution that prioritises new approaches to skills development within the existing workforce in tandem with looking towards previously untapped talent pools.” (The Open University, 2019).

The solution

The picture which emerges in both these recent studies is that the solution lies in organisations having to change the way in which they think about and approach training and skills development, ie there is a need to implement a shift in learning culture. A modern, flexible learning environment is now required in order to create a more engaged and productive workforce and one which is able to up-skill effectively.

At the centre of this much needed shift in learning culture is the employee or learner. It is even contended that self-directed or self-determined learning (sometimes referred to as heutagogy) is essential for overcoming the growing skills gaps, regardless of organisation or of industry.

Four key areas

Organisations that have “high performing learning cultures” also demonstrate an ability to overcome the challenges mentioned previously because they are already taking steps to stay ahead in these four key areas of capability:

  • transforming impact

  • driving learning agility

  • learning experience that matters

  • future focused people professionals.

The next article will take a look at the steps organisations can take in each of these four areas in order to plug skills gaps.

“The skills acquisition risks are growing more fiercely than ever. To win demands reinvention and a transformation focus. To do this, organisations should rethink how to create a culture that identifies, aligns and delivers the strategic capability goals, is created for and by a future fit alternative workforce and one that is human in its nature, leveraging a learning ecosystem that grows at the desired pace and scale required.” (Towards Maturity, 2019).

*Who Moved My Skills? Towards Maturity CIC Ltd, 2019

**Bridging the Digital Divide, The Open University, June 2019