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Upskilling employees: How to overcome the top barriers

March 20, 2023

Every year, various publications and organizations (including us) list their “top tech skills” to learn and the “most in-demand tech skills” to develop. But effectively upskilling employees involves more than simply knowing what skills they need.

In our 2023 State of Upskilling report, we surveyed more than 1,200 technologists and leaders to uncover the top upskilling barriers—what they are, why they matter, and how to overcome them.

What is upskilling?

Upskilling means helping employees learn or develop the skills they need to succeed in their current role or prepare for a new role. Upskilling helps organizations plug critical skills gaps, fill open roles with existing talent, and meet business objectives.

Why is upskilling employees important?

Tech evolves at a rapid rate. According to IBM, specific technical skills have a half-life of only two and a half years. Upskilling employees is imperative to keeping up with the tech trends

Consider the explosion of ChatGPT. Anyone who doesn’t upskill in AI/ML will fall behind. That can have drastic effects on your organization’s products, services, and customer satisfaction. Without upskilling, you limit your employees’ knowledge, innovation, and productivity.

What are the benefits of upskilling your employees?

In addition to helping your organization keep up with tech trends, upskilling plays an important role in employee satisfaction and retention. In fact, 47% of technologists consider leaving their current organization to grow their responsibilities and skill sets. To keep your top talent, your organization needs to provide upskilling and other development opportunities.

Some other benefits of upskilling employees include the ability to:

  • Reduce hiring costs

  • Fill skills gaps

  • Attract new employees

  • Improve change management

  • Create a culture of continuous learning

How to overcome the top barriers to upskilling employees

Upskilling employees is key to developing top tech skills, bolstering technologists’ skill confidence, and filling organizational skills gaps. But you (and your employees) may encounter some challenges along the way. And you’re not alone. Many organizations face similar challenges when upskilling their employees.

What are the challenges with upskilling?

Upskilling involves challenges for the technologists learning new skills and the tech managers and HR/L&D leaders creating the tech skill development strategy. Identifying the barriers that exist in your organization is the first step to crafting an effective employee upskilling plan.

The top barriers to upskilling for technologists

They’re too busy. For technologists, the biggest barrier to upskilling is a lack of time. 42% said that they’re too busy to take the time to upskill. 

They lack direction. 30% of technologists aren’t sure where to focus their skill development, and 25% aren’t sure which learning resources to use.

Their environment is distracting. 23% of technologists say a distracting work environment makes upskilling a challenge.

The top barriers to upskilling for HR/L&D directors

They lack sufficient budget. 30% of HR/L&D directors say not having enough budget is the biggest challenge their organization faces in upskilling or reskilling their tech workforce. 

They don’t have the right data or metrics to track success. 26% report a lack of data and the inability to demonstrate the ROI of learning investments as a key blocker.

They don’t partner with their technology org. 17% of HR/L&D directors say the lack of partnership with tech leaders makes it a challenge to upskill or reskill their tech workforce.

The top barriers to upskilling for tech team executives

They’re constrained by budget. 15% of tech team executives said budget constraints/costs is the biggest barrier their organization faces in upskilling or reskilling their technology workforce. 

Upskilling isn’t an organizational priority. 13% of tech team executives reported that their employer emphasizes hiring new talent rather than upskilling existing employees.

They can’t access the right resources. 12% said their tech employees’ inability to access necessary tools and training impedes their organization’s upskilling efforts.

Upskilling employees: 3 tips to supercharge your strategy

Here are some tips to tackle the top upskilling barriers technologists, tech team executives, and HR/L&D directors face:

Align upskilling with hiring

Almost half of technologists say their employer tends to hire from the outside instead of searching internally for candidates to fill positions. If employers consistently hire external talent, existing employees may think, “What’s the point? Even if I take the time to learn new skills, I won’t be hired anyway.”

To make upskilling employees an organization-wide priority, document employee skill sets and create career paths that show how upskilling can help employees transition to a new role or earn a promotion. What skills and experience does each role need? How does that align with the skills someone already possesses?

If you document skills this way, you’ll have a ready-made list of potential candidates when a new role opens up. You may not even need to look for talent in the marketplace. As a result, you reduce hiring timelines, cut recruiting costs, and boost morale.

Want to see this action? Check out our PS@PS case study and learn how we developed an internal talent pipeline for hard-to-fill engineering roles.

Provide paid time to learn (and make sure employees use it)

Less than half of technologists are available to spend time outside regular work hours to learn new tech skills—but 21% feel pressured to. Technologists are too busy to learn new skills on the job, but most don’t have time to learn outside work hours (and we shouldn't expect them to).

The solution is twofold. First, your organization needs to offer paid learning time during the work week. You might block off two hours per week on the entire department’s calendar for learning a new skill. Or you might organize a learning sprint to prepare a specific team for an upcoming project. The amount of time you provide isn’t as important as making sure employees actually use these learning opportunities.

After all, even though 74% of technologists say they receive some time during the work week to learn new tech skills, being too busy is still their biggest challenge. If you ask employees to upskill, keep in mind that their productivity levels won’t stay the same. Adjust your expectations and delivery due dates to match so they don’t feel pressured to upskill or catch up on work on their own time. 

You can also encourage team members to share what they’re learning during team meetings and recognize employees who upskill with shout-outs or swag. All of this will help you build a culture of learning where employees feel supported to grow.

Upskilling and talent mobility often go hand in hand. If you also want to break down organizational barriers to talent mobility, check out our blog post

Supply the right learning resources

Technologists and leaders say a lack of proper resources and/or direction makes it difficult to upskill. To overcome this barrier, technologists need to know what skills to learn and how to learn them. 

Start by identifying the tech skills you need your teams to develop. These are typically tied to projects and organizational outcomes. For example, if you’re planning a data pipeline implementation (and 63% of tech team executives say they are), you’ll want to make sure your employees understand topics like SQL, big data, and data warehousing.

After you identify the critical skills your teams need, survey your technologists to find out what resources they find most effective for learning new skills. In most cases, self-paced video content is a good starting point but not enough on its own. In fact, technologists say hands-on experiences, alone or in combination with video content, are the most effective at preparing them to apply new learning on the job. The skills they use hands-on labs and sandboxes for most? Software development, IT Ops, and data science. 

Virtual or in-person instructor-led training (ILT) is another effective way for technologists to develop their skills beyond video content. 27% of technologists like ILT because they can ask questions and get help right away. Technologists noted that this learning method is especially effective for learning data science, network infrastructure, and cybersecurity skills.

Once you’ve decided which resources to invest in, take the time to create clear learning paths that direct technologists to the right content. Which courses do they need to complete? Are there specific certifications they should earn? Can they test out of certain modules? 

When you align learning resources with tech skills, technologist needs, and organizational outcomes, you create an all-encompassing upskilling strategy for your employees.

ANZ Bank has an upskilling rate that’s 200% faster than the financial industry average.

Remove barriers to upskilling employees

Upskilling employees is a journey, and it’s natural to face challenges along the way. But the right insights can help you chart your course and circumvent obstacles before they appear on the horizon. Download the 2023 State of Upskilling to get the info you need to optimize upskilling and overcome barriers in your organization.