Is the skills gap really an opportunity gap?

Last week, we launched a new bi-weekly LinkedIn Live series called In The Know, a 25-minute dive into the most pressing topics and relevant issues affecting the L&D and HR industries across the frontline workforce. It’s a quick download of what everyone is talking about in the fast-moving industry and in the first episode, Axonify’s Chief Learning Architect JD Dillon was joined by Matthew Daniel, Guild Education’s Principal for the Career Mobility Center of Excellence, to chat about best practices for enabling talent mobility within the frontline workforce. The discussion included insight into how to create new opportunities for employees to develop in their current roles, and new ones, including thoughtful and tangible upskilling and reskilling strategies.

Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the lively episode. (Don’t forget to RSVP for the next one.)

You’re up against more than the skills gap

According to Deloitte’s 2021 Human Capital Trends Report, only 17% of executives say that employees are very ready to adapt, reskill and assume new roles. But at the same time, there’s been a decline in skill development programs: Degreed’s State of Skills 2021 study reveals that 46% of employees say their organizations have reduced upskilling and reskilling opportunities.

JD pointed to this disconnect as one of the main catalysts.

“It’s not that we fail to recognize the importance of skills,” he says. “The real problem from my perspective isn’t a skills gap, it’s an opportunity gap. The reason we’re struggling to find the skills our organizations need is because we failed to prioritize the opportunity to develop for far too long.”

The opportunity gap actually includes a combination of other factors responsible for the current state of skills, including:

  • Mindset gap: how you think about the role learning and skill development play within the workforce at all levels of the organization, from frontline workers to senior executives.
  • Priority gap: how you prioritize development within your organization. Do you consider it as a secondary task (something you can’t regularly make time for) or is it an ongoing part of the job that’s just as important as reaching your next quarterly KPI?
    Inclusion gap: how you prioritize skill development for every employee regardless of the type of work they do or how long they’ve been doing it.
  • Reality gap: how you provide opportunities that are realistic and achievable to your workplace’s unique needs. For example, reaching employees where they are rather than expecting them to find time in their busy schedules to come to you for extra training.
  • Digital gap: how you make sure you have technology in place so employees can access training and resources they need to build the right skills so they can do their best work every day, and at the same time prepare for the skills they’re going to need into the future.

These are all things to keep in mind as your organization discusses skills gaps and looks to implement skills-based strategies. As JD astutely points out, “If real opportunity to develop doesn’t exist, your new ontology or your new skills marketplace won’t actually help you close the skills gap.”

Think of frontline work as a career, not just a starting point

The mindset around frontline work has changed, spurred by the effects of the pandemic that laid bare how integral these workers are to their communities locally and to keep up the speed of progress globally. But there’s still work to be done.

Daniel says that shedding long-held misconceptions about the frontline and the tangible value that they add to the workforce can mean real progress for employees and businesses.

“We see the number of frontline employees who are making investments in themselves, and where an employer like Walmart, Walt Disney or Chipotle is creating opportunity, those employees are seizing it and finding ways into new jobs where they’re adding increased value inside the organization,” says Daniel.

This explains why the same percentage of people— 63%—who quit their jobs for pay, quit their jobs due to lack of career advancement opportunities.

To start thinking about the concept of career opportunity differently when it comes to frontline workers, Daniel says to consider the fact that nearly two-thirds of these workers said they would stay longer if there was the prospect of mobility in their organization. Making space for vertical (or horizontal) movement within the existing company and establishing it as an internal priority gives employees the confidence that there are legitimate opportunities to develop more specialized skills and can help them feel more engaged when they show up to work.

Identify hidden talent within your organization

Do you include all employees in your talent strategy—or just the employees you’re most directly connected to?

The investment in the talent of your entire frontline, Daniel says, is one way organizations can thrive even in a labor shortage.

“If we create investment in these people, they’ll stick around and make investments back into the organization.”

Your employees have an identity beyond the work that they’re doing every day (eg. coaching a youth sports team, planning a fundraiser, setting up a website for a friend) and smart businesses will find a way to tap into unique skills and investigate how they can be leveraged for opportunities that go beyond the narrow confines of a job description.

Ultimately, JD and Daniel agree that organizations can do a better job of giving people credit for the work they do on the frontline. Guild Education, for instance, helps employers get their training strategies articulated for credit hours. And although that doesn’t always mean employees will achieve a skills certificate, it helps to recognize the training investment in durable skills that are highly transferable and attractive to nearly every potential employer.

In short, it’s time to build internally and develop tangible opportunities for all workers. Go beyond training for today’s skills and roles and build a workforce that’s ready to weather staffing supply-demand changes as they come.

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