In January (2020), the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated the US unemployment rate at just 3.6%. Though a low unemployment rate is usually good news for an economy, fewer people searching for employment means a smaller pool of talent for businesses, often leaving employers desperate to find the skilled workers needed to fill open positions.

However, businesses miss out on major opportunities when they search for talent outside of the organization, rather than within it. Scrutiny of 30 years of data found that external hires not only cost more than those promoted from within but also tend to score worse on performance reviews and have a shorter tenure than their hired-from-within colleagues.

Moreover, promoting from within improves employee retention, work ethic, and even workplace happiness. It also gives hiring managers the benefit of knowing that the existing team member is already a good cultural fit, has strong working relationships, and understands the industry.

Upskilling your employees is a critical process in reducing the need for outside hires and increasing internal promotions.

Investing in your current team's soft skills, technology know-how, and knowledge of industry trends can help your business reap the rewards of promoting from within and creates more well-rounded individuals and teams.

Start increasing professional development opportunities to improve your company's performance and ultimately create an impressive talent pool for future openings at your organization.

The following are some ways to go about your upskilling effort, along with challenges that may need to be overcome.

Upskilling Your Workforce

Investing in employees' professional development can take many forms.

Online learning platforms are common tools for upskilling. Examples include LinkedIn Learning, Udemy, and Docebo, but there are seemingly endless options to choose from.

Online learning platforms allow learners to go at their own pace, from home or even during work hours, on the individual's preferred device.

These platforms are excellent for teaching skills in technology, with many of them offering quizzes and practice tools for testing new knowledge. Soft skills, such as tips for putting together engaging presentations, can also be taught through these services.

However, if these platforms are to be successful for training employees and embraced companywide, it's important to reinforce an accepting environment for those who choose to dedicate some work time to these studies. Newsletter announcements, in-office seminars led by reps from the training platforms, and vocal encouragement from C-suite are all effective ways to reinforce a positive attitude about investing time with online learning platforms.

Department-hosted workshops are another professional development opportunity for your teams. Booking a half or full day once per quarter to discuss case studies, explore the industry's trending topics, or hear from experts outside of the company can provide a wealth of inspiration and knowledge for internal teams.

Those workshops can be led by department heads or your organization's in-house training team. They're great for developing soft skills because they offer opportunities to practice listening, difficult conversations, and ways to de-escalate disagreements with coworkers.

webinars are another platform for upskilling. They require a smaller time and money investment than the two options noted earlier. A one-hour Webinar hosted by leading industry organizations can provide snackable tips, insights, and inspiration for a busy team that's still hungry to learn.

Take all of those upskilling initiatives to the next level by asking for additional steps from employees following trainings:

  • Have a team member to do a five-minute presentation for the rest of the company at the next all-staff meeting.
  • Ask an employee to write for the company blog on the subject.
  • During the next one-on-one meeting, discuss ways the new knowledge can be executed in the employee's day-to-day activities.

Challenges With Upskilling

One of the challenges with upskilling is that as employees learn new skills, they may be tempted to "step out of their lane" and take on responsibilities that are not necessarily theirs, or provide their two cents on issues that might not be within the scope of their current role.

In those instances, it is important to level-set with employees on when it is appropriate for them to exercise their new talents. Showing appreciation for their input and passion can help provide balance for these conversations so that team members do not feel discouraged from speaking up and providing insight.

In addition, upskilling too many individuals too quickly can put your business in a position of having many "jacks of all trades but masters of none." Making sure all teams retain subject-matter experts can help reduce that risk, allowing for a healthy distribution of well-rounded managers and highly specialized individuals below them.

Finally, perhaps the most commonly cited challenge for upskilling employees is the risk that they may use those talents to find work elsewhere after your organization has spent budget on their training. That fear is unfounded, though. As noted earlier, companies that promote from within have a higher employee retention rate than those that do not, and a 2018 survey found that 93% of respondents would stay at a company longer if it invested in their professional development.

Simply put, employees value being valued, and they tend to stay at a company longer when they know they matter to an organization. Investing in professional development and promoting from within are great ways to show your employees that they are important to your company.

In a Nutshell

There is a popular meme in business circles, and it sums up the investment in upskilling perfectly:

  • CFO (or CEO): "What happens if we invest in our employees and they leave?"
  • CEO (or CFO): "What happens if we don't and they stay?"

While upskilling is not without its challenges, the benefits of a happier workforce, higher employee retention, and reduced costs more than make up for those hurdles.

Thanks to the various options and tools available to employers, implementing professional development policies geared toward soft skills, technical knowledge, and industry trends in your organization is easier than ever.

As founder and CEO of Virgin Group Richard Branson put it, "Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don't want to."

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Upskilling: How Professional Development Can Improve Company Performance and Employee Retention

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image of Rashele L.

Rashele L. works from inside Perryville correctional facility as a people development coordinator with Televerde, a sales and marketing technology solutions organization that hires, trains, and compensates incarcerated women.