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How upskilling can futureproof your business, your people and yourself

By Andy McLean MIML

We’ve all read the speculative headlines about robots marching in to steal people’s jobs and automation laying waste to careers and livelihoods. But there is a plausible and altogether more positive alternative for the human race, according to new global research by the World Economic Forum and PwC.

Upskilling for Shared Prosperity explains that if new technology is going to reward workers rather than replace them, then workforces must upskill and reskill so that by the time any particular job is declining, people are ready for new, better jobs.

The report highlighted crucial skills that will be necessary to take advantage of technology change (e.g. digital skills, creativity and complex communication skills). And there was encouraging news for managers and leaders in Australia and New Zealand: Upskilling will not only boost organisations, but also swell the nations’ coffers.

By closing the skills gap, Australia alone stands to gain US$90bn by 2030, which equates to 5.2% of GDP. From an employment perspective, this could generate an additional 200,000 Australian jobs by 2030 (equivalent to a gain of 1.6% in employment).

Why managers and leaders should prioritise upskilling

In today’s fast-paced world, managers can only lead inclusive and sustainable organisations when they prioritise upskilling, according to Tim Rawlings, Director and Head of Training Product Development for PwC’s Skills for Australia. “With every single business strategy, the question that sits behind is: ‘In order to execute that strategy, what capabilities will my people need?’. If you want your business to move forward and grow, then change is inevitable and you’ll need a different skills mix in your organisation.”

If managers and leaders don’t upskill people, they will encounter one of two things, according to Rawlings. “You’re either going to have to let go of people and bring in new talent in order to meet your changing skills needs, or you’ll be forced to put people in jobs who don’t have the requisite skills.”

Tim Rawlings, Director and Head of Training Product Development for PwC Skills for Australia

Even before the pandemic, Australian and New Zealand employers were already suffering skills shortages in a range of digital and other specialisms. Historically, some responded by importing talent from overseas, but new border restrictions are making that nigh on impossible.

So, the business case is strong for upskilling and reskilling the people you already have in your organisaton. But how can managers and leaders make that happen? Rawlings suggests five practical steps.

1. Start with strategy

Upskilling activities can take innumerable forms, and there’s no shortage of learning providers in the marketplace. But they won’t all suit the needs of your organisation or people. That’s why it’s important to have a long-term view of what skills your business will need in future – informed by your organisation’s strategic plan.

“Your strategic vision and plan will help you look to the horizon and get ahead of the upskilling curve,” says Rawlings. “Once you know what skills your organisation will need, then you can assess where the gaps are within your current workforce and decide how to address those.”

Creating an upskilling strategy can sound like a daunting prospect, but it’s not a single big bang that crashes through the organisation. It should be broken down into iterative parts, and delivered over a staggered period, says Rawlings.  

“Some people misunderstand and think that on a certain date – all of a sudden – skills will need to change overnight. Actually, these things happen very slowly but consistently over a long period of time.

“For example, 10% of a person’s job might change over the course of the next 12 months, during which it’s very easy to upskill them and improve their productivity along the way. But if leaders wait and don’t act, then gradually more and more of that person’s job will eventually change, and that’s when you’ve got a bigger problem.”

2. Lead upskilling from the top

An upskilling strategy doesn’t just require sign off from an organisation’s leadership team – it requires them to genuinely invest their time and energy in it.

“Upskilling needs to be elevated to a strategic issue that the c-suite thinks about and discusses,” says Rawlings. “When the CEO owns the upskilling agenda, the chances of success multiply. They can set the tone and this filters down through the rest of the organisation.”

CEOs have executive decision-making authority to set sufficient budgets and remove roadblocks within the organisation. “Unless you have that sort of buy-in from the top, then there is a danger that colleagues within the organisation will see upskilling as a HR or IT issue. When, in fact, it requires buy-in from every part of the business,” says Rawlings.

3. Foster a culture of upskilling

To keep momentum and stay on track, managers and leaders need to cultivate a culture of upskilling in the organisation. “It’s a lot like going to the gym,” explains Rawlings. “You wouldn’t go and do five weeks of gym work once every year. You go to the gym three times a week all year round, and you’re constantly working away at it. That’s how it is when you have an upskilling culture in your organisation but, at the moment, not a lot of businesses are approaching it in that fashion.”

To develop a culture of upskilling their workforce, managers and leaders should consider a blended learning approach – incorporating a broad spectrum of professional development. This is likely to include coaching, mentoring, social learning, self-assessments, etc.

Formal learning and development also has a big part to play, says Rawlings. “Quality training can come in two forms. There’s quality online training and there’s quality face-to-face training. I don’t think online is replacing the old training days and face-to-face, but this idea of blended learning and getting the right mix between what can be absorbed online and what requires classroom learning – and linking them together – is critical.”

For learning and development activity to ‘stick’, it’s essential to link it to people’s individual jobs. “It’s like if you hear a joke and you don’t retell it soon after, you’re probably going to forget it,” explains Rawlings. “You need the development activity to be linked to a person’s job so that it sticks in their mind, and so that the person sees the relevance of the training. When you create that flow – the cultural push, the quality training and then the linkage to the job – you’re a long way down the path to having a great upskilling culture.”

4. Treat upskilling as an investment

Cynics might say that upskilling makes employees more attractive in the jobs market, and therefore more likely to leave the organisation. But leaders who labour under that misapprehension are missing the point. In this dynamic marketplace, employers who fail to offer employees upskilling opportunities will find staff hiring and retention much harder.

“For leaders, upskilling is an investment in your organisation as well as your people,” says Rawlings. “If you don’t maintain your physical equipment (e.g. machinery), it will malfunction. The same logic applies to your colleagues. People need to keep developing and adapting in order to function well in their jobs.”

Upskilling not only makes your workforce more productive, it also makes them more loyal, according to Rawlings. “People who are getting opportunities, trying new things, and growing are much more likely to remain with their employer. You can also link your learning programs to personal career progression and performance evaluation, so that people know their upskilling is being seen and recognised.”

5. Lead by example

When it comes to upskilling, managers and leaders should not forget their personal need to develop too. As Rawlings points out, “Many leaders stumble when they see their own skill development as a linear trajectory, thinking that they’ll keep progressing so long as they just keep refining their existing technical skills.”

A common pain point is when someone steps into their first management role. It can be a big jump from a role that demands technical proficiency, into a new role managing people, risks, budgets, projects, etc. Several new skills are required simultaneously. (This is where programs such as IML ANZ’s Intentional Leadership Foundations can make a big difference.)

Whatever their level of seniority, the secret for managers is to remain intentional about honing and developing their transferrable leadership skills, says Rawlings. “My message to managers would be that you’ve got to recognise that you’re not perfect. You may have secured a couple of promotions and got yourself into a great role, but you’re still going to have to evolve and keep upskilling.”

IML ANZ’s Intentional Leadership Accelerate program is designed to support experienced managers and further develop their leadership skills.

Get ready for growth

So, while the doom-mongers fret about robots and automation replacing human jobs, the World Economic Forum and PwC say there are reasons for optimism. They advocate a collective response to national skills shortages – where governments, businesses and education providers each play their part.

“The moral of the story is that leaders aren’t fixed to one job and so if a person can upskill they can keep having a good job with good pay and conditions,” says Rawlings. “They can reap the benefits of changing economies if they keep moving forward themselves. The same applies to everything in the system: businesses, industries, and nations. They all need to keep moving forward with their skills. If you do that, then the focus is not about a day when everything drops off a cliff and you lose 500 jobs on a production line. It’s more about renewal for everyone.”


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