RESKILLING: A Good Idea That's Usually a Big Lie...
January 27, 2021
Let's have some real talk about a daring concept of the media, thought leaders and a bunch of other people who aren't on the ground level of running a business or an HR function.
Let's talk about Reskilling. First a definition:
Reskilling: The process of learning new skills so you can do a different job or of training people to do a different job.
That description of reskilling works. We want people to be trained to do a different job as needed (if their current skills are obsolete), and there's basically two choices. We can rely on individuals to go get what they need, or we can create a program to give larger groups of people the training they need, which seems like an efficient way to get the right skills, to the people, who need them at the right time.
The concept and the intent are great instincts and it's a noble thought. Too bad that's where the practicality of reskilling ends.
Reskilling is hard—like riding a bike on the freeway hard, which is a favorite go-to line of my college basketball coach.
Why is reskilling a good idea on paper yet so hard to execute in real life? Let's list the reasons:
1--Companies are the best option to reskill workers, but when it comes to the expense required, most companies can't/won't invest. Here's a test: The next time someone at your company wonders if reskilling is an option, ask them if they are willing to increase the training budget from $300 per FTE to $6,000 per FTE, with no guarantee of ROI. The consultants will say, "absolutely", at which point you need to invite them to give a presentation on this need and the cost to your C-suite—where they will either be shredded or treated politely but only to be ghosted after the meeting harder than a first date gone horribly bad.
No one denies reskilling is a great idea. But few with shareholder return responsibilities in the Corporate world can greenlight the cost associated with reskilling. The only company types that can/will realistically embark on a reskilling journey are the mega companies like Amazon that are facing a dramatic talent shortage in a specific area.
For those types of companies, reskilling might work. But it rarely gets past its capable cost competitors vying for the chance to fill a skill gap—robots, automation, A.I. and offshoring.
2--Talent is mobile and there's no guarantee your reskilling will be rewarded with long-term retention. Let's say you pull it off. You saw the need in your company and invested heavily in getting a cross-section of employees reskilled with relevant skills and get them the experience they need to be productive in the targeted roles in your company.
Congrats. You made it. You navigated significant execution risk and created a reskilling program that creates real results. It's wasn't easy, and you started from the bottom, and now you're here.
On Tuesday of next week, you'll receive the award for innovation at your company.
On Thursday of next week, some smart recruiter outside your company makes a couple of calls and learns there's a class of 20 reskilled employees at your company with a hard-to-find skill she's been searching for without much success. Two months later, you've lost 6 of your original 20 Reskilled U. graduates who gave themselves a 30% pay increase by answering the recruiter's calls. Another 20% will be out the door in the next two months.
You've become an organ donor for the rich. Damn, didn't see that coming.
Always get payback agreements for inclusion in reskilling training, my friends.
3--Reskilling as an adult is hard, and it's hard to find willing participants for these types of programs. The scenario that I would analyze reskilling to is the Tuition Aid Programs. As business leaders, we love to offer up Tuition Aid programs as a clear signal that we are fully invested in the career development of the people who work for us.
This just in; we can offer up to the max reimbursement allowed by the IRS for Tuition Aid Programs, because we know that only a small percentage of employees will take advantage of that benefit. Turns out, it's really hard to go back to school once you are past 25 years old because you are doing all that adulting stuff—starting families, hitting the gym after work, binging that C-level series on Amazon Prime Video, etc.
Oh yeah, the coursework is a giant pain in the ass too.
Our experience with Tuition Aid tells us that the only way to make reskilling work is to not only cover the expense but to pay people to be a part of it as well which brings us back to point #1.
By the way, the sweet spot of reskilling probably exists in community colleges across the country, right? Access to local folks who need to upskill to be relevant in the economy, a grass roots approach, etc. Community college reskilling programs seems like the perfect fit for our government getting involved in reskilling, but to maximize availability, they can't pay people for their time, they can only provide grants to cover the cost of the course. Thus the similarity to Tuition Aid. People have to keep working which makes reskilling hard to make time for. Only the most motivated and those in the perfect situation will be able to be focused on reskilling.
4--Add it all up, and it's easier to get better at recruiting and increase wages for roles with candidate shortages rather than reskill. I hate to say it, but my advice to any well-meaning business leader interested in reskilling AND success/profitability is to focus on getting better at talent acquisition rather than reskilling.
When it comes to reskilling, you'll read a lot of things from high end sources—HBR, The New York Times and more—that suggest we must reskill for the future.
I don't disagree with the thought. But the people writing the features on reskilling don't work in the trenches, and they don't run companies. Out here in flyover country, it's a hard-knock life and we tend to work hard to remain profitable and not go out of business. Turns out, it's complicated.