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5 Ways to Engage Deskless Workers with Learning

Deskless workers are the backbone of manufacturing, construction, shipping, energy and other key industries that play a fundamental role in supporting the global economy. And as supply chains continue to be severely stretched worldwide, innovative talent development professionals are closing their organization-wide skill gaps by upskilling frontline workers with new learning opportunities.

“Deskless jobs in these industries tend to require highly skilled workers — and those skills aren’t cultivated overnight,” according to Training Industry magazine. “The COVID-19 pandemic set off a wave of employees taking career breaks and others leaving the workforce all together. It’s no surprise that employers are struggling to fill open positions with qualified people.”   

While it might seem daunting, finding new ways to engage — or re-engage — deskless workers can also boost job satisfaction. Indeed, expanding your L&D offerings to these populations of your workforce can provide people with recognition that boosts morale. We’ve seen this among our own clients. 

Let’s take a look at five ways you can give your frontline people learning opportunities that matter to them and create value for your organization:

  1. Find the right technology.

In March, the Harvard Business Review explored why frontline workers are quitting despite a 7% to 10% wage increase since the onset of COVID-19. Among other remedies, the publication urged companies to boost learning opportunities, recommending organizations invest in onboarding and skill-building programs.

A huge part of that investment comes down to finding the right learning platform. According to one study, only 23% of frontline workers have access to the technologies they need to do their jobs. Even when they do have access, they’re often not trained on how to use those tools.

Companies upskilling and deploying talent effectively are emphasizing internal rather than external resources. They invest in data, tools and processes that prioritize skills and opportunity. It requires taking inventory of talent and compiling a complete picture of the skills and experiences of all their people. The next step is figuring out future skills needs.

Armed with that knowledge, look for a learning technology that provides personalized experiences. This is especially important for deskless workers, who will undoubtedly have divergent interests and career goals. They’ll benefit greatly from access to custom learning pathways that accommodate their distinctive motivations. 

Given the nature of deskless work, mobile access is a huge factor. At Ottawa Police Service, accessibility now means learning on the go — any time and anywhere — and perhaps nothing illustrates that better than police officers engaging with their own development.

“Half of our workforce is in a cruiser, and they’re using Degreed on their phones,” said Joshua Abraham, Learning & Development Manager at the service, which serves the Canadian capital. 

Six months after the service launched its learning platform, 1,600 people there used it every month, exceeding the benchmark for success by nearly 50%. 

  1. Give people time to learn.

A lack of time for professional development is one of the biggest obstacles to learning, according to the Degreed How the Workforce Learns 2021 report. 

To address that, you can shift your people to a learning-focused mindset. It isn’t easy. But when Deborah Wiest, Vice President of Learning and Development at UnitedHealth Group, sees concerns about lack of time at her organization, she offers a thoughtful response: “Everyone has time. We all have time. How are you choosing to spend it?”

Learning leaders can be a powerful force in guiding culture change. If people don’t feel time spent learning is valued by their company and team, they likely won’t make time to do it, Wiest said.

At Fraser, a Canadian hospital chain, learning leaders expanded beyond online learning, especially among frontline workers, said Daryl Page, Leader of People Development. The organization now sets aside time in morning huddles for workers to share new knowledge with colleagues and team leads. 

Giving teams time to share their learnings during the workday shows people their organization prioritizes and encourages their learning, which helps create a positive learning culture.

  1. Let people explore.

When learning leaders at Ecopetrol rolled out a learning experience platform (LXP), they were surprised to find people in operations and maintenance roles — not only desk jobs — among the biggest early adopters. This engagement from frontline workers outpaced anything the award-winning L&D team at the Colombian national oil and gas company expected.

The frontline workers “were looking for subjects related to their jobs but not exactly their positions. It was a huge insight,” said Monica Santos, Ecopetrol Schools Leader. “There were some things that were mandatory, and they were doing those. But they were also exploring. Some of them did it during shifts at night because there’s less activity in the plant.”

Ecopetrol uses its LXP to engage workers like Luis Giovanny Barbosa Arias at the Barrancabermeja Refinery, who’s been given time to explore videos, documents and short articles to focus his learning. It’s a critical part of the organization’s efforts to prepare its workforce for global industry changes shifting production away from hydrocarbons toward low-carbon alternatives.

The result of all this exploration is clear. People are developing new learning habits, closing the loop on one of the learning team’s key goals: inspiring people to own their own development. And as the company increasingly innovates new technologies and processes, workers will already know how to build the skills they need to support those initiatives and stay competitive.

“Implementing Degreed was about building that learning habit,” Santos said. “We’re putting learning into the minds of everyone.”

  1. Make learning social.

Deskless workers are often on their feet — moving around and physically interacting with their coworkers. Incorporating that comradery into the learning dynamic can go a long way in making development effective. 

As you look for new ways to help people build skills, consider a hot topic in L&D: social learning. “Social learning can take many forms, including peer conversations, team collaboration, self-directed study, forums and networks, communities of practice, and even blogs. Modern training incorporates social software, advances in video and multimedia technology, and state-of-the-art learning platforms. Using these tools, employees can easily connect across teams, satisfying their curiosity and fulfilling their learning needs.”

At Ottawa Police Service, collaborative development has replaced learning silos. Events like lunch-and-learns feature content from TED@Work. And using social features of the organization’s learning platform, people at all levels are exploring leadership, wellness and resiliency.

“When else would someone have the opportunity to connect with a police officer in a completely different unit and learn together?” Abraham noted. “Degreed is bringing us closer together, as peers, to learn from each other as an organization. We were all doing our own thing before, but now we’re doing one thing together, and it’s a positive thing. And I think that’s a big win for us.”

  1. Provide experiential learning opportunities.

Last year, an average of 3.9 million people per month left their jobs — the highest average ever recorded. As business leaders have looked inward, asking if they’ve done enough to retain their people, L&D has stepped up to fill skill gaps from within. Providing workers with experiential learning opportunities is just one  key L&D strategy these professionals deployed. If people don’t practice what they learn, they lose it.

Successful upskilling requires doing. People need a chance to practice and master skills on the job. This can be especially true for your deskless workers brimming with ideas, looking for inspiration — and craving exposure to opportunities otherwise out of reach. Our research shows most employees know the skills they need to perform better in their current roles and advance their careers. Organizations enable this growth by being nimble and democratic with learning opportunities.

Adidas trained a couple thousand frontline retail employees on how to think like business innovators. Then Adidas solicited their ideas. The company developed thousands of ideas, sharing them in open meetings. For some employees, it was the first time they reported being excited and inspired at work.

You can tap the same enthusiasm when you connect your deskless workers  to projects, stretch assignments, mentorship and internal gigs that let them put skills to work in a real-world setting.

Ready to find out more?

We’re here to help — whether you’re looking for a new learning technology, giving people more time to learn, helping them explore, making learning more social or working hard to provide people with on-the-job experiential learning. Contact a Degreed representative to learn how you can advance learning at your organization.

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