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How to Get the Workforce Skills You Need for 2021

In response to COVID-19, companies around the world are pulling back on upskilling. And yet, six in ten workers say the ongoing global pandemic and resulting economic crisis are accelerating their need for new workforce skills, according to our report The State of Skills 2021.

Moreover, nearly half (46%) of all workers surveyed say their current skills are becoming obsolete. Feeling vulnerable and concerned for their futures, many say they’re likely to leave their current jobs for something more promising if their employers don’t invest in their development.

“Keeping people’s skills in sync with the constantly changing world of work is the biggest talent challenge of our time,” according to Degreed CLO Kelly Palmer. “It’s essential to understand exactly how to put an advanced, people-focused upskilling strategy in place now.”

Upskilling: Your Path to Workforce Retention

Even before COVID-19, there was a pressing need for initiatives that invest in people’s continuous learning, identify and fill skill gaps, and keep people employable. Upskilling aligns the skills of your people to your evolving business strategy, which is critical to creating real business value. In addition, upskilling creates a more vibrant company culture, boosts workforce engagement, and accelerates digital transformation, so your organization can innovate faster and quickly react to new market opportunities.

Even if your talent budget is tight or your company is focused on improving working capital and overall liquidity like so many others during the current crisis, it doesn’t have to be a barrier to workforce development. In fact, some key recommendations for improving your cash-on-hand — things like using disruption to drive change, doubling down on quick in-house wins first, and driving digital transformation — often require some learning (and often lead to positive ROI).

In her guide 7 Steps for Upskilling Your Workforce, Palmer lays out an agile, iterative process for implementing an advanced and effective workforce skill development strategy:

  1. Identify future skills. These are the critical capabilities your workers will need in the next one to three years. Our research shows that, globally, overall demand is strongest for technology skills, but also social skills like leadership, management, communication, and negotiation.

In financial services, critical thinking and decision making also rank high. For the tech and telecommunications industries, design and engineering are equally in demand. And for consumer and retail or healthcare, creativity is an important capability.

Ultimately, the need depends on who you are, where you work, and what you do. To take a deeper dive, check out our State of Skills report, which breaks the demand down by country, industry, and role. 

2. Assess skills. This helps you find a baseline you can use to set learning goals and measure progress in meaningful ways. You can do this manually, by surveying your people or pulling data from a human capital management (HCM) system, an applicant tracking system (ATS), a learning experience platform (LXP), or similar applications. It can be difficult and take a lot of time to get a full picture of skills across your organization. And you’ll probably find yourself managing data with spreadsheets.

Another way is to use purpose-built technology that fixes the problem of fragmented and ever-evolving data sets. You can use a platform that integrates with your HR technologies, continuously collects the latest skills data from your workforce, and helps you make sure that people’s skills are up to date so you can create a dynamic talent strategy.

3. Set upskilling goals. The objective here is to add targets to your plan that fill skill gaps within your organization. It’s about using your baseline of existing workforce skills to help determine how your organization will identify the future skills it needs.

This is where you can start winning hearts and minds. Communicating your goals with your people can give them a sense that your organization takes their development seriously. And a little more hope for the future could go a long way to reducing on-the-job stress. In our State of Skills report, more than half (55%) of workers say a lack of confidence in their skills makes their jobs more stressful. And nearly four in ten (38%) say their mental health suffers.

Setting workforce skill goals starts with a baseline

4. Map learning to skills. This is the fun part, when you get to figure out the best learning methods for your organization — online, team-based, peer-to-peer, or on-the-job. Hopefully, by this point your organization’s commitment to building a strong learning culture is on full display.

One way to drive positive learning ROI is through thoughtful content curation. At Visa, for example, the L&D team personalizes and simplifies learning by curating content tailored to each worker’s interests or skill needs. Taking it a step further, the team uses data from search queries, skill levels, and other measurements to deliver relevant materials more quickly. And Visa develops its people authentically, by giving workers in different regions unique learning experiences important to their cultures and locations (using content that’s centrally curated and then recontextualizing it).

5. Measure skills progress. Your people are learning. They’re building new skills. And if things are going well, your efforts to keep your people are in full swing.

Of course, there’s still another fundamental question to answer: Are your people learning anything? Are they putting their new knowledge into practice? Palmer recommends creating a dashboard to continually track progress of workforce skills. Metrics can include a skills inventory, skills ratings, and skills progression with the ultimate goal of seeing how people are filling their skills gaps.

6. Match skills to opportunities. If you’ve made it this far, your people are likely engaged and excited about the future of your organization — so much so that they’re motivated to contribute in new ways that take them out of their existing responsibilities.

The goal here is promoting internal mobility to connect employees with new projects, gig work, stretch assignments, and more by creating a dynamic career marketplace. Research shows that workers stay an average of 41% longer at companies that do a good job hiring from within. 

7. Communicate metrics of success. Traditional learning metrics like course completions and hours of training often aren’t enough to reinforce the value of learning to your CEO, business leaders, managers, individual contributors, or anyone else. These metrics can begin to tell a basic story of how your workforce interacts with your learning initiatives, but they don’t confirm that anyone actually learned anything.



Telling your workforce development story — in fresh ways with new metrics — can capture the attention of your business leaders and make your learning program an important business priority. The new learning metrics focus more on engagement, social learning, content, and the skills your people have and need.

Retention can certainly be a key new metric, along with time to productivity, revenue growth, or any other data points relevant to your organization’s business priorities.

Meeting the Future Head-On with the Right Workforce Skills

None of us can predict what’s coming. But we can do our best to prepare for what’s ahead by understanding what’s happening now and taking action. For business challenges and industry disruptions, this includes moving forward with a thoughtful workforce development strategy.

Ready to kickstart your upskilling strategy? Contact Degreed to discuss it in more detail. We’d love to answer your questions and help however we can. 

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