Summer 2019
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It's Time to Own It
CTDO Magazine

It's Time to Own It

Monday, June 17, 2019

Talent development professionals are responsible for closing the skills gap.

The skills gap has hit a critical point in today’s workplace, causing angst among talent development professionals. According to the Association for Talent Development’s 2018 Skills Gap report, Bridging the Skills Gap: Workforce Development and the Future of Work83 percent of respondents report a skills gap in their organization and 78 percent expect their organizations to have a skills gap in the future.


Defined in the report as “a significant gap between an organization’s current capabilities and the skills it needs to achieve its goals and meet customer demand,” the skills gap is crippling companies’ growth and workplace culture.

“Our economy is being rapidly reshaped by technology, automation, globalization, and other forces,” said Thomas J. Donohue Sr., president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, at Talent Forward 2018 in Washington, D.C. “This transformation is creating opportunity, but it’s also creating disruption—and with it, insecurity for many businesses and workers.”

Donohue says that this insecurity can be linked to two gaps that are keeping companies from leveraging talent and people from achieving their full potential. “The first is a skills gap—too many people lack the skills or credentials they need to compete for 21st century jobs. The second is a people gap—too many businesses can’t find the workers they need when and where they need them.”

And according to LinkedIn Learning’s 2019 Workplace Learning Report, digital transformation is decreasing the shelf life of skills. This is challenging organizations to play catch-up while they try to hire and develop their people. But that is not as easy as it sounds. Predicting the skills a company will need five, 10, or 20 years from now can be mind-boggling. “It is not about where you are today; it is where you will be tomorrow,” says Dan Schawbel, partner and research director at Future Workplace.

A shared responsibility

The skills gap has been a point of discussion for more than a decade, but the LinkedIn Learning report shows that the top area that talent development professionals expect to focus on in 2019 is identifying and addressing this gap. But who is responsible for closing it?

Sixty-nine percent of ATD skills gap survey respondents placed the sole or shared responsibility for resolving the gap on talent development professionals. That is up 10 percentage points from 2015.

“I don’t think it is the sole responsibility of talent development professionals, but I do think a shared duty makes sense because you need people with real ownership, whose job it is to focus on it and have a budget for it,” says Schawbel.

“I also think this is a bigger discussion—one that needs to happen with employees because employees benefit when their company is upskilling. They become more relevant, they might get paid more, and they become more employable,” he adds. “It also helps managers because they can be confident that they have the right employees with the right skills to solve challenges and move the company forward. It is good for the overall growth and innovation of a company.”

While reskilling a workforce that is already present and assessing what skills are missing are key tasks for talent development professionals, do the education system and government also have roles in preventing people from coming into the workforce unprepared?

“The U.S. Department of Education’s National Report Card released in 2018 showed that more than half of fourth-grade students score below grade level in both reading and math,” Donohue explained. “The report card also revealed a widening achievement gap between high-performing and low-performing students. Globally, U.S. students rank 17th in literacy, 21st in science, and 26th in math. Without these critical building blocks of learning, it becomes harder for students to catch up, let alone get ahead.”

Predicting the skills an organization will need five, 10, or 20 years from now can be mind-boggling.

The big complaint has always been that students graduating from college do not have the skills to succeed in the workforce. This is where companies and colleges need to collaborate to discuss the skills needed for the future workforce.

The public workforce system also has a role to play in retraining displaced workers. Regional workforce development boards and one-stop career centers are tasked with strengthening the local workforce with the skills needed to succeed in high-demand jobs that need workers.

“In the United States, the gap is the biggest it’s ever been,” Schawbel says. “It is over 7 million unfilled jobs. … It keeps getting worse, and it affects every company differently. So, every company needs to assess the skills that are in need, and then come up with a real strategy to close the gap.”

Now what?

“Talent development professionals need to change the way they see things,” advises Schawbel. “They need to collect data—where they have a lack of skills or where they are having trouble filling certain roles. Once they start to plot everything that is going on, then they can make a case for the changes that need to happen to combat the skills gap.”

He notes that talent development professionals need to raise the issue with senior leadership, “because even at the CEO level, they probably are not thinking about the skills gap in most cases. They’re thinking about driving the company forward and the vision for the company, but not about upskilling employees or closing skills gaps within the company.”

The LinkedIn Learning report shows that 61 percent of talent development professionals attend meetings with executives or senior partners to help them identify which skills are lacking or for which employees need training. More than 70 percent of talent developers use internal skills gap assessments to decide which learning programs to create or curate.

“It is about investing time and money, changing job descriptions, and recruiting differently,” admits Schawbel. “We need to evolve our job descriptions so that they align with these updated skills and then be open to hiring people that we normally wouldn’t hire. Companies need to be more open to hiring the nontraditional candidate.”

Bridging the Skills Gap presents a six-step action plan to help talent development professionals assess and close the skills gap within their organizations.

Step 1: Clarify and understand the organization’s performance metrics. Identify key stakeholders who can help support closing the skills gap; identify the factors in the economy, culture, and market that most influence their organizations; and analyze their companies’ key strategies and goals and how they align with organizational performance metrics. Further, determine what competencies employees at all levels must possess to meet current and future performance metrics.


Step 2: Identify competencies and skills that map to strategies and performance metrics. Be able to identify current needs, as well as competencies that will be needed for the next one to three years, and they should be able to see any disruptions or new technological advances that will affect those work competencies. It is imperative that talent development professionals can identify which skills will be required to meet desired performance standards, in what timeframe, and how they will be measured.

Step 3: Assess the gap. Define the scope of how the organization will address the skills gap and consider starting with one function or business unit as a pilot. Use analytical tools, such as impact mapping, to identify performance behaviors required to meet specific goals. Conduct a capability audit to determine where gaps exist in employees’ knowledge, skills, or behavior; and identify the consequences for not closing the skills gap.

Step 4: Set goals and prioritize the path to filling gaps. Establish baseline measures of employees’ current skills and competencies. Set goals for closing gaps between existing skill sets and those needed to support current and future goals. Determine which paths to take to fill particular gaps: apprenticeships, reskilling, outsourcing, hiring, training and development, coaching, or mentoring. Implement a method for tracking skill competencies, and communicate and educate managers and employees.

Step 5: Implement solutions and monitor sustainability. Prioritize and secure funding from key leaders in the organization. Connect with your state and local workforce development board to identify opportunities to partner and build relationships among industry, government agencies, and educational institutions to bridge the gap with aligned programs. Ensure senior leadership buy-in during every step of the process, and link all talent development goals to the organization’s skills needs and business priorities.

Step 6: Communicate the impact. Establish formal communication channels that will share relevant news related to learning impact and progress toward closing the gap. Be prepared to demonstrate how closing the skills gap has increased organizational performance while improving productivity and reducing costs. Communicate progress and results regularly to all stakeholders, and create a means by which the organization will acknowledge and celebrate progress in achieving skills gap goals.

According to Bridging the Skills Gap, the talent development function should develop an action plan, which is “a guide to prioritizing the resources and steps necessary to enable organizations to make meaningful progress when it comes to having the right skills, knowledge, and abilities now and for the future. Key to the success of this effort is for the talent development function to partner with business owners and executives. … It is time for the talent development function to embrace and drive change.”

CTDO Summer 2019 Angst Chart 1
CTDO Summer 2019 Angst Chart 2

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Paula Ketter is ATD's content strategist. Previously, she served as editor of ATD's periodicals.

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