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Skills for the future, today: closing the L&D skills gap 

In an era of digital transformation, L&D is at risk of being left behind. Unfortunately, L&D appears to be digitally underskilled, having been unable to keep pace with the rapid rate of change in recent years. The good news? We’re here to help L&D teams close that skills gap and unlock your full potential.
Dom Murray, Content Writer
2020-12-02

In a constantly evolving technological landscape, keeping up with new skills, knowledge, and proficiencies is a major challenge for L&D professionals. It’s hard to find time to learn the ins and outs of that new efficiency app, or master your team’s new messaging tool, in between everything else. With so much to learn, it’s difficult to be a jack of all trades, let alone a master. 

Still, in an era of digital transformation, L&D is at risk of being left behind. Unfortunately, L&D appears to be digitally underskilled, having been unable to keep pace with the rapid rate of change in recent years.

The good news? We’re here to help L&D teams close that skills gap and unlock your full potential. We’ll ask ‘are L&D digitally underskilled?’, before diving into how to close the L&D skills gap, soft skills vs hard skills, and the top emerging skills for 2021 and beyond.

Ready to become a skills superstar? Read on. 

Are L&D digitally under-skilled? 

The short answer is yes, L&D teams are digitally underskilled. 

According to Skillsoft’s Mind the Gap report, 48% of L&D employees believe their team is underskilled to deliver what is needed for their business. Similarly, Emerald Works’ 2020 Back to the Future report finds that 39% of L&D respondents believe that L&D is ‘overwhelmed & under-equipped.’ Perhaps more notably, this figure is trending in the wrong direction — up from 29% of respondents in 2019. 

In her recent article for Go1 Crafting a digital learning strategy that creates value, Michelle Ockers summarised this issue, stating, “L&D team skill levels reported by learning leaders at the start of 2020 include only: 

  • 32% have adequate technology/infrastructure skills compared to 40% in early 2018
  • 32% have adequate skill with virtual classroom/webinar delivery
  • 29% have adequate digital content development skills.”

Again, these skills are moving in the wrong direction. In another worrying trend, LinkedIn’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report finds that 79% of CEOs are concerned that a “lack of essential skills in their workforce is threatening the future growth of their organisation.” This is up from 63% in 2014, coinciding with increased adoption of new learning technologies. 

This skills gap is further demonstrated in Emerald Works’ The Transformation Journey report, which shows the stark difference between the skills L&D teams deem important, and the skills L&D teams actually possess. 

For example, 84% identified performance consulting as a priority for understanding business requirements in the future, however, as of 2018, only 34% of L&D teams had those skills in-house. Additionally, 93% said facilitating collaboration was a priority, but only 23% have those skills in-house. Finally, 92% said digital content creation was an essential skill, yet only 31% have adequate in-house content creation skills. 

Ultimately, underskilled L&D teams are being left behind, as The Transformation Journey report found that high-performing learning organisations are 3x more likely to “possess the right skills to exploit learning technologies for business advantage.”

The good news is that L&D teams recognise this issue and are working to change it, with 62% of L&D professionals saying that ‘closing the skills gap’ is the number one goal of their L&D program in 2020, according to Udemy.                            

However, while this is beginning to have an impact, it may not be happening fast enough. Deloitte’s 2020 Human Capital Trends report finds that “L&D teams are not moving the needle far enough...while 50% of our respondents reported that their L&D departments were evolving quickly, 14% said that this evolution was not happening fast enough.” 

The message is clear: L&D teams need to keep up and develop future-ready skills, or risk being left behind. While digital transformation is happening quickly, L&D teams must be agile in equipping their teams with skills that are relevant in 2020 and beyond. 

Currently, L&D’s skills seem to be trending in the wrong direction; so how do we turn things around and close the skills gap? 

Upskilling & reskilling to close the L&D skills gap 

While closing the L&D skills gap won’t be easy, most organisations recognise the need to invest heavily in skills for the future. Largely, this will involve wide-scale upskilling and reskilling efforts. Gloat provides a useful comparison of these terms, explaining, “upskilling is the process of learning new skills or of teaching workers new skills, while reskilling is the process of learning new skills so you can do a different job, or of training people to do a different job.” 

Basically, upskilling can help employees excel in their current role, while reskilling trains employees to perform in new roles. Keep that in mind, as they’re terms that you’re likely to hear a lot in the coming years. 

In fact, according to LinkedIn’s Workplace Learning Report, 51% of L&D professionals plan to launch upskilling programs in 2020, while 43% plan to launch reskilling programs. Further, Deloitte found that 84% of L&D professionals said they would increase their investment in reskilling programs, with 53% adding that they would increase this budget by 6% or more.

Other estimates find that 54% of employees will require extensive upskilling or reskilling by 2022, while McKinsey believes that by 2030 “375 million workers—or roughly 14% of the global workforce—may need to switch occupational categories as digitisation, automation, and advances in artificial intelligence disrupt the world of work.” Whatever number you place on it, digital transformation will fundamentally change the way millions of people work, making upskilling and reskilling indispensable for the future of L&D. 

COVID-19 has only accelerated the need for upskilling and reskilling, with 43% of companies increasing their upskilling/reskilling efforts in the wake of COVID-19. The good news is that these efforts have had measurable positive outcomes, with 80% of employees saying upskilling/reskilling has boosted their confidence, and 91% of companies saying upskilling/reskilling has boosted productivity. 

Further, Udemy estimates that 38% of the workforce have been upskilled this year, compared to 14% in 2019, showing L&D teams are starting to recognise the need to keep pace with digital transformation. 

Ultimately, Deloitte predicts the future of work will involve ‘superjobs’, making upskilling and reskilling even more critical. They define ‘superjobs’ as, “roles that combine work and responsibilities from multiple traditional jobs, using technology to both augment and broaden the scope of the work performed and involve a more complex set of domain, technical, and human skills.” 

In other words, with technological advancements leading to increased automation, as well as changing societal needs, traditional job roles will change — perhaps drastically. As such, workers will need to adapt their skills and knowledge to perform in these emerging roles. 

With this in mind, let’s look at the top skills you need to be focussing on to stay ahead in L&D in 2021. 

Top skills for L&D professionals in 2021 (and beyond) 

Before we get into the list, it’s worth looking closely at a key area that may shape the future of L&D (and work more broadly): soft skills vs hard skills. 

Soft skills vs hard skills

Indeed provides a useful definition of soft skills and hard skills, stating, “hard skills are related to specific technical knowledge and training while soft skills are personality traits such as leadership, communication or time management.” 

For example, hard skills include things such as speaking another language, SEO expertise, or Salesforce knowledge. In contrast, soft skills include things such as communication, creative problem solving, and leadership. 

This is important, as the rise of AI means soft skills are becoming more and more in demand since many hard skills are being automated. According to LinkedIn’s Workplace Learning Report, investing in soft skills is smart as “the shelf life of technical skills is relatively short—less than 5 years—while strong leadership, creative, and communication skills are always in demand.” This is a sharp decline, as not long ago, hard skills were estimated to have a shelf life of 10-15 years. 

Fortunately, executives have noticed this trend and are acting accordingly. According to IBM, “a shift is occurring; executives’ views regarding the priority of critical skills have taken a turn from digital and technical to behavioural.” In other words, many executives now value soft skills (behavioural skills) above digital or technical skills, recognising such skills will be crucial for success in the future. Workers have also noticed this shift, with 87% now saying they actively seek out opportunities to learn new skills in the workplace. 

Skills for the future, today 

Clearly, soft skills are non-negotiable if you want to succeed in L&D in 2021 and beyond. LinkedIn’s Workplace Learning Report has identified the highest and lowest priority skills for L&D professionals, based on the percentage of surveyed L&D professionals who are focussed on developing these skills. Unsurprisingly, soft skills come out on top. Leadership management (57%), creative problem solving and design thinking (42%), and communication (40%) top the list, while at the other end of the scale, mobile computing (9%), engineering and coding (8%), and cloud computing (8%) lag behind. 

LinkedIn also takes this a step further, identifying the top 5 soft and hard skills for L&D professionals in 2020. Heading up the soft skills list is creativity, followed by persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and emotional intelligence. These skills all centre around a common theme of working together and bringing new ideas to the table. Evidently, L&D pros expect this to be a key pillar going forward. The top four on this list are the same as in 2019, showing their ongoing importance, while emotional intelligence is a new entrant on the list. 

When it comes to hard skills, blockchain is number one, followed by cloud computing, analytical reasoning, artificial intelligence, and UX design

Udemy’s 2021 Workplace Learning Trends report delves further into this topic, showing that soft skills have been all the rage in 2020. According to their research, consumption of time management and motivation courses are up 990% and 855% respectively compared to 2019. Listening skills (+1,650% increase on 2019), business communication (+1585% increase on 2019), and interpersonal feedback (+686% increase on 2019) are also on the rise, as are decision making (+1,240% increase on 2019), strategic thinking (+848% increase on 2019), and teamwork (+812% increase on 2019). 

The common theme? Soft skills are hot, hot, hot. For L&D professionals to succeed in 2021 and beyond, developing and honing your soft skills should be a key focus. 

For more information on developing soft skills, check out our blogs on The importance of soft skills in today’s workforce and Why training for soft skills should be your number one priority

Or, if you’re still hungry for more, why not read the other articles in our Digital Foundations series, Understanding business value vs learning value and Rethinking the ‘L&D’ mindset

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