Who is responsible for reskilling the workforce?

Technology is advancing fast. In the next decade, digitisation and automation – along with wider trends like an ageing global population – are going to make reskilling the workforce a must.

But who is responsible for reskilling? Will it or should it be the workers themselves? Employers and businesses? Governments?

It’s something that needs to be talked about more if we don’t want to end up with even more of a skills gap than we currently have and a society that’s even more unequal than it already is.

What is reskilling?

Reskilling is the act of re-training in the new skills required to do new kinds of work.

It’s different from “upskilling”. A person being “upskilled” is trained to develop their existing expertise in the same direction. Most organisations consistently provide “upskilling” for their team in the form of career development and training programs.

Reskilling comes in when no amount of upskilling will enable a person to handle the disruption to an industry or job that comes with the introduction of a new technology.

Think of an assembly line worker whose job is replaced by automation. It doesn’t matter how good they are at their work. Without reskilling, they’re going to find their skills obsolete.

Is reskilling worth it?

As with the question of who is responsible for reskilling, whether moving laterally between jobs is worth it depends on the point of view of the person asking the question:

  • For the individual – faced with a gradually diminishing number of businesses that will hire them with the skills they currently have, reskilling in the face of technological progress may become more “mandatory” than “worth it” for many people.
  • For an organisation – trying to determine value, recent surveys and studies seem to indicate that it’s worth reskilling existing team members on a purely financial basis about 75% of the time. However, it’s not just the bottom-line finances that are worthy of consideration.

What does reskilling mean for…

1) The employee?

Most people want to keep their skills relevant if only to make sure they can access job opportunities. Today, when tech advances so fast, being on the ball with skills is more important than ever.

There are two ways of looking at this. The first is that it’s a pain in the neck. Rapid technology advancement sounds good on paper, but when it means regular retraining for you it can start sounding a whole lot less attractive.

The other side of the coin is much more positive though. How many times have you seen the words “skills shortage” in the press in recent years?

There are a lot of opportunities out there at the moment for people who are willing to reskill. Reskilling might be hard work. But if you come out of it with a new job in a sector you really want to be in, it might be worth it.

2) The organisation?

That skills shortage can be bad news for business leaders though. If you’re not set up to provide reskilling (and upskilling) where necessary, it’s looking more and more likely that potential talent will simply choose to go elsewhere.

There are also salary costs to consider. Potential employees who already have the expertise in new technologies are going to be able to ask for bigger pay packets.

Reskilling existing team members might cost money. Yet it might end up being more cost-effective in the long-term because:

  • 90% of UK businesses say they’re missing at least some of the skilled workforce they need.
  • 80% of UK employers expect to hire more tech-focused people in the next few years (in areas like cloud computing and cybersecurity)
  • 20% saving – that’s roughly how much less reskilled workers generally end up costing a business than skilled talent hired in from outside.

In the future, I think this means organisations that put learning and training at the heart of how they care for their team are going to be in much better positions than their competitors that don’t. Those organisations are also going to be able to access a much wider and more diverse pool of talent.

3) Government?

You might be forgiven for thinking that with such big technological and demographic changes on the horizon, reskilling the workforce should be the responsibility (and priority) of governments.

Some governments seem to be cottoning on to this. For example, France has an interesting up/ reskilling system in place that guarantees people time off when they retrain or get training. On the flip side, the US government insulted many people whose manufacturing jobs were offshored to China by offering them a kind of “disability benefit”.

The UK government has been slow on the uptake. Occasional handwaves in the general direction haven’t been backed with anything like the necessary laws, funding, or even incentives like tax breaks that some say will prove themselves worth the investment within the next decade if not sooner.

Who is responsible for reskilling?

Some would argue that reskilling should be the employee’s responsibility. But imagine a low-skilled worker whose skills become less relevant but doesn’t have access to the opportunities needed to reskill without support.

I think making reskilling the sole responsibility of workers will almost certainly lead to more inequality and what’s sometimes called a “digital divide” between those who have the opportunity to reskill and those that don’t.

Others would say it’s the responsibility of businesses. There are certainly benefits to be gained for organisations that take ownership of reskilling their team. Yet the spread of zero-hour contract work and the gig economy, where organisations wash their hands of many responsibilities to their employees, show that not all organisations consider the issue on a moral or practical level.

On top of that, there are some issues relating to reskilling that are beyond those that individuals and all but the largest organisations can or should have to deal with. Governments will almost certainly have to start taking responsibility and action now if this isn’t to become an even bigger problem ten years down the line.

Where do you come down on the reskilling debate?

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