Preparing Today’s Workforce for Tomorrow’s Challenges

How to Create an Ecosystem that Supports Upskilling

By Anita Jivani, Director, Strong-Bridge Envision Northeast Region

Cultivating human skills in an increasingly automated world is one of the distinguishing factors of people and organizations that will thrive in the future. In addition to preparing today’s workforce for the challenges they’ll inevitable face tomorrow, ongoing learning and development lead to a more engaged and balanced population.

Despite the investment that organizations make in upskilling, much of their investment is wasted or channeled inappropriately. Even with an investment of over $90 billion in the US alone on training, the benefits often go unrealized; more than 33% of individuals say they have done no training or upskilling in the past year. Furthermore, today’s current investment in learning is not solving for the disengaged employee or highly stressed worker. According to a Gallup Study, 70% of workers in the United States are not engaged. More concerning still is that 40% of individuals feel that it would make no difference if their jobs ceased to exists, a shocking number highlighted in David Graeber’s 2018 book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. This group of disengaged workers contributes to increased costs and unrealized potential, creating risk for organizations striving to be relevant now and in the future.

Strategically investing in upskilling and aiding employees in striking the right balance is one of the largest challenges that organizations face. Upskilling intelligently can have significant returns beyond preparing for the future by giving those who are bored meaning in their jobs and those that are overworked a research-proven way to decrease their stress levels.

Below we highlight what individuals and leaders can do to create an ecosystem that supports upskilling and create a robust foundation for the future.


What can individuals do?

From Bill Gates to Warren Buffet, people who have invested in themselves have reaped the rewards in their careers. Many use the “5 hour rule” of dedicating an hour every weekday to learning something new, reflecting on experiences, or upskilling. Blocking off time to focus on being lifelong students is one of the most valuable investments individuals can make for themselves, and one that Indra Nooyi highlighted in her goodbye note last week, reminding us that learning is universal and essential.

How should one use this blocked time? Individuals can dedicate time first to understanding which of their skills require more complex thinking, then to refining these skills through active practice.The focus should be on polishing current skills in more nuanced contexts, learning tangential skillsets, and making connections between complementary technical competencies.

Organizations will vary in how much time they allot their employees for development and which skillsets take priority. Rachael O’Meara, author of Pause: Harnessing the Life-Changing Power of Giving Yourself a Break, shares that connecting your learning interests with business objectives can help you gain your company’s support in ongoing learning. Regardless of the skills being developed or the level of organizational investment, individuals with a bias toward action as it relates to upskilling for the future will have a significant advantage over peers and competitors.

What was the last skill you acquired, and how much time did it take? How many hours did you spend last week on upskilling, and how many do you plan to spend this week?

What can leaders & managers do?

Leaders can pave the way for learning by demonstrating its importance for themselves and their teams. In a 2016 HBR article, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Mara Swan highlight that leaders can nurture learnability on their teams by demonstrating it themselves and by rewarding the behavior. What’s more, leaders are the only people who can ensure their teams have the time to invest in their own learning – this is known as slack time. Allowing for some slack time ensures that it is realistic for team members to invest in themselves and keeps people more engaged and satisfied at work.

Of course, this investment in time has tradeoffs in speed and quantity of work completed. Leaders should help navigate this tradeoff discussion on behalf of their teams by communicating upwards and externally about what will be delayed, deprioritized, or delegated to allow individuals to invest in themselves. By allocating time to learning, and by communicating the impact of this decision on short-term metrics and long-term outcomes, managers can lead the way in helping individuals make space for activities that are important but not always urgent.

How muck slack time do your team members have to invest in upskilling? What barriers have you helped eliminate to support your teams in responding to demands and learning new skills?


The role of organizations & society

Organizations are in the unique position to decide what and how much they invest in their people and the culture they want to create. Creating curated courses based on current skill gaps and taking a blended training approach can provide tailored upskilling at the individual level. However, without a culture that backs the value in learning, individuals may not be able to reach the learning goals set for them. Organizations should audit their cultures to determine if they lean more towards a growth mindset or a fixed mindset and determine which factors will help push employees toward growth – creating an organization of people who believe in the power of learning, who see development as a key value, and who recognize failure as an opportunity to grow.

Societies also play a critical role in ensuring that future generations can grow and develop. Investing in academic and extracurricular programming for children and young adults – particularly programs that focus on future-orientated skills – creates a foundation in the education system that translates into workplace success. Whether manifested in policies that influence how young people are educated or “house rules” that parents implement for cultivating growth-orientated skills, investment in the broader ecosystem will trickle down to the organizational, team, and individual levels.

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Anita Jivani is a Director at SBE in New York City focused on Future of Work, Next-Gen Change Management, and Organizational Design & Innovation. Her clients span the private, non-profit, and public sectors and have included organizations such as Walmart, World Bank, and the U.S. Olympics Committee. Her advisory footprint spans geographies such as Kenya, Brazil, India, China, Costa Rica, Philippines, Argentina, Canada, and Mexico.

Anita has spoken about the Future of Work at various conferences and events including TEDx, Deloitte ID, American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and the U.K. Science and Innovation Network. Anita has an MBA from the Yale School of Management, BS with honors from Vanderbilt University, and is a Fulbright Scholar.

Email Anita here and follow her on LinkedIn.