Skills-based training can future-proof workers and businesses – with the help of AI

Artificial intelligence is threatening to replace many roles. But, if used effectively by L&D and HR teams, it could be more blessing than curse, according to 360Learning’s David James

Skills is the biggest bottleneck to growth for three quarters of CEOs, according to a PwC 2020 talent trends survey. David James, L&D expert and CLO at 360Learning, says: “The skills gaps that exist across economies restricts abilities to survive and thrive.”

The survey highlights that nearly half of workers will need to be retrained this decade, yet despite these findings many organisations are at best paying lip service to the issues.

“Skills is the language of the business,” says James, who explains that skills-based learning is in his mind going to be the most important workplace revolution since the advent of remote work.

James believes that it starts at the grassroots and truly getting to know your organisation. “One problem is that often businesses are working off a skills analysis that is provided by vendors, but what we need is to arrive at these findings by aligning L&D more closely with HR. Generative AI can provide more details about what’s needed.”

If skills-based learning is the revolution, what does it mean? James says it is aligning activities and the investment in learning and development to the required skills within the business, as opposed to delivering more topic-based learning: “Before generative AI it was too much hard graft. You had to map skills internally, let alone benchmark them externally. This also has the problem that they can be out of date quickly. It puts people off even trying. The analysis done by vendors doesn’t solve real problems, it's just lip service to skills-based training.”

James adds that a skills ontology can benchmark against job descriptions externally and provide insight into employees themselves. “Gaining mastery of skills to enable professionals to move sideways or upwards is key,” he says.

“There is a great quote that pokes at the issues here because some organisations may be fearful of upskilling their employees and say: ‘If you train your people too much, they might leave,’ but on the flipside the danger is: ‘What if they stay?’

“For many organisations this is a real problem; holding on to employees that are essentially walking through treacle and unable to move forward with their skills and talents – in essence meaning that the organisation also cannot propel itself forwards to where it needs to be.”

“We get pigeon holed as a training department under the auspices of being ‘people fixers’ but this is not the right approach,” says James, who believes that there need to be new approaches used together with technology to close the skills gaps.

Some crystal ball gazing shows us that many jobs will be automated in the future and, in these instances, skills-based training can provide a solution that allows professionals to find alternative careers once theirs have become redundant. “If you have a contact centre, for example, with a lot of telephone staff, it’s easy to see that over the course of time, and to an extent even nowadays, these jobs are going to be automated,” says James.

“Generative AI is taking these roles, so organisations have two choices: let them go or upskill those staff for roles that are emerging.”

James envisions that this will take the form of working with a workforce planning team to build a pipeline plan of where staff are now and where they need to be in the future: “Analysing existing roles can help with this as well as the formation of mini accelerated apprenticeships to craft learning for future requirements.

“At Aviva, one of the UK’s leading insurance, wealth, and retirement businesses, the L&D team are in the process of upskilling their customer service operators with new digital skills that the business can use when those current roles are automated.”

It’s a proactive approach to deploying talented staff into new roles where the business needs them when technology replaces their existing positions.

“It’s shocking that in a survey of 3,600 professionals with responsibility for skills, only a quarter of those said they were learning and development professionals, so it begs the question ‘why?’ If L&D aren’t involved in future skills planning, why not and what’s the reason for that?”

James says that, when L&D are properly utilised, they can be identifying emerging skills in the marketplace that are scarce. When they can spend time and be empowered to do this important job, he believes we will see that businesses are better armed with the knowledge of the skills they need to future-proof themselves. “If you don’t have the mechanisms to develop a deeper, richer talent pool then you have very little. Relying upon traditional methods of hope is outdated,” says James.

Skills-based training can also catapult the workforce towards resilience and can be an effective strategy for retention, just as in the Aviva example, where the benefits are two way for employer and employee. It allows for workers to build deliberate pathways towards a future, rather than shying away from the realities of what the future may hold.

Employers that can proactively prepare for what the organisation needs and equip their staff to ensure they are the valuable assets of not only today but tomorrow will reap the benefits by future-proofing the viability of their businesses with professionals that have the right skills to take the business forward.