May 11, 2021

HR Priority in 2021: Cross-training and Upskilling Employees

The world of work is changing. That is especially true for human resources departments and talent-management teams as they are tasked with figuring out how to meet evolving workforce demands, often with fewer resources. One of the key strategies HR teams have developed amid the economic chaos and uncertainty of 2020 to help their companies remain competitive is a stronger focus on employee learning and development. The goal here is to build more resilient workforces. In fact, according to an upcoming Eightfold survey, cross-training and upskilling employees is a top goal for hiring teams and management in 2021. 

As Jackie Wiles at Gartner writes, “HR leaders see building critical skills as vital to driving many of their organization’s priorities.” By focusing on improving the skills of their employees, organizations are better able to withstand changes and move successfully into the future.

The Driving Forces Behind Improving Employee Skill Sets

Talent management has become increasingly critical for organizations to recognize success. A number of different factors are driving that focus on employee skills development, especially over the last year or so. These factors include a growing talent gap, the changing nature of work, and the financial insecurity many companies face.

The Talent Gap

A widening talent gap is one of the biggest issues driving the need to improve and increase the skills of current employees. Employers are simply struggling to find high-quality talent. “A big challenge for us is finding enough people that are capable to do the work,” says Dan Peterson, vice president for industry and government affairs at Cook Medical, of his company’s struggles to fill medical device manufacturing jobs.

His company isn’t alone. According to a 2020 survey by McKinsey & Company, 87 percent of executives and managers report they are either currently experiencing talent gaps or expect to be experiencing them in the near future. Closing those gaps has become imperative to organizational success. While most respondents to the survey report focusing on hiring to close those gaps, about one-third say they have started training their employees to either perform more duties in their current roles or move into different, sometimes multiple, roles. 

The Changing Nature of Work

The talent gap is being partially fueled by the ever-changing nature of work. Automation, digitization, and remote work (among other factors) are contributing to significant changes in how work is done and the skills needed to perform jobs. Employers and employees alike are learning how to navigate those changes.

“Workers across industries must figure out how they can adapt to rapidly changing conditions, and companies have to learn how to match those workers to new roles and activities,” writes McKinsey & Company partners Sapana Agrawal, Aaron De Smet, Sébastien Lacroix, and Angelika Reich.  

Training has become integral as businesses determine the skills their workers need to possess, the workers best suited to the roles, and which new skills those workers would need to meet the demands of changing work requirements.

The Financial Constraints Imposed by the Pandemic

The financial insecurity ushered in by the pandemic has forced companies to closely consider every dollar they spend. This need to be frugal has driven hiring managers to focus more on retraining current employees than hiring new ones. 

That’s because it typically costs less to invest in training programs than to invest in new employees. “It’s more cost-efficient and far more effective to build critical skills from within,” writes global industry analyst Josh Bersin. According to his research, it can cost six times more to hire externally than to build new skills internally. 

This cost differential goes a long way toward explaining why 68 percent of organizations have sustained their employee training budgets and six percent have increased their budgets for reskilling and upskilling employees during the pandemic, as reported in a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.

“Despite these unpredictable times, many employers are maintaining their upskilling and reskilling initiatives, which is critical to maximizing talent and bridging the skills gap,” says Trent Burner, vice president of SHRM Research.

Once committed to investing in learning and development programs for employees, employers must decide on the best strategy for developing employee skills. 

two IT workers in a server room; cross-training and upskilling employees concept

A Hybrid Approach Helps Employees Develop Skills

There are no one-size-fits-all training programs. As you devise the best programs for your organization, it’s important to understand the different approaches to training — upskilling, reskilling, and cross-training.

  • Upskilling is training that enhances a person’s performance in their current role and prepares them to progress at their jobs. This approach gives employees the skills they need to take on new responsibilities within their position, like being promoted to manager in their department. 
  • Reskilling is training that helps employees shift into new roles or adjust to significant changes in their current roles. An example would be training a receptionist to take on marketing tasks after your company adopts an AI-based phone answering system.
  • Cross-training (or cross-skilling) prepares employees to take on additional work related to their current roles. Cross-trained workers can fill in at other positions within their departments, such as an event planner taking over duties of a social media marketing manager.

Each approach has its place in a training program, and a lot of companies are implementing hybrid training programs. “When it comes to rapid employee development, most companies are focusing on hybrid approach of reskilling, upskilling, and adopting a cross-functional training program to keep the employee’s skill set relevant to their organizational requirements,” writes Vinay Ravindran, senior manager of human resources at SG Analytics.

one office worker shows a tablet screen to another; cross-training and upskilling employees concept

Strategies for Creating Effective Training Programs

Developing effective training programs for your employees takes planning. You can’t just pick a training program online, stick your employees in front of the computer to hear a presentation, and then send them back to work expecting them to retain or use anything they may have learned. Here are useful strategies for creating learning and development programs that work.

Establish a Culture of Learning

Adapting a growth mindset and encouraging learning at the company are key to successful training programs. This means creating a culture where everyone understands that learning isn’t a one-time event or presentation but rather an ongoing process. It’s about creating a desire to learn and improve. When everyone genuinely accepts this, training programs are more effective in the long run. 

To encourage your employees to want to learn and develop new skills, trigger their curiosity by making them aware of what they don’t know. Then reward them for their curiosity and learning, write Bersin and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup. 

Offer Personalized Programs

Training should benefit the individual as well as the company. Not everyone needs the same set of skills or the same training. That’s because they have different backgrounds and roles, and also because everyone has different career goals and paths. Tap into those aspirations and create individual training programs as opposed to group training that is beneficial for some but a waste of time for others. 

Part of a personalized program is its delivery method. Some people learn better through webinars, while others prefer live instruction and hands-on opportunities. Gather and use that information to create custom learning programs that workers want to participate in. 

Pair Employees with Mentors

In keeping with the principle that training is ongoing, assign mentors to employees. This can help ensure employees see how the skills they’re learning are used on a daily basis. By sharing their knowledge personally with employees, mentors can help those workers better retain and apply new skills. In the end, mentorship can accelerate training.

As companies move through 2021, our research indicates they will rely more heavily on upskilling, reskilling, and cross-training their employees in order to adapt to rapidly-shifting workplace requirements. Building effective training programs that combine these three approaches to learning will be key for successfully doing more with less when it comes to talent.

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