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How HR professionals can overcome the skills gap

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How can HR professionals help close the skills gap?

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A skills gap is the gap between what an employer expects from employees and the actual level of skill the employees have. This can lead to difficulty in filling positions at the best of times. The pandemic has changed the labour market and the way people view and participate in professions. 

Fallout from the pandemic has driven many people to re-examine their relationship with work. Many people are seeking more work/life balance and flexibility with their work schedule or environment, leading to trends such as remote work or a hybrid work schedule.

This “Great Resignation”, also referred to as the “Big Quit” or “Great Reshuffle”, is an ongoing problem for employers worldwide. These problems are not only due to people leaving their jobs but difficulties replacing staff as well. Good candidates are being snapped up in an instant.

Traditional ways of doing business have been greatly impacted by the Great Resignation. Those businesses that don’t accommodate the future of work will likely find it a struggle to retain existing staff or engage new employees if they aren’t already struggling.

What causes the skills gap?

While the pandemic and the significant number of people who switched jobs have significantly impacted the skills gap, these variables are not responsible for the skills gap itself. 

There are a number of reasons that the skills gap exists, but one of the primary drivers is that many businesses opt to “buy” skills by only hiring people with specific skill sets. This is done instead of upskilling existing workers or using technology to replace a talent. 

Hiring for specific skills essentially makes necessary work skills transitory. This means that when an employee leaves, the relevant skills leave with them. This then forces a recruitment search for the same very specific candidates. 

The biggest gaps in skills in the workplace typically revolve around technology. The ability to analyse data is one of the key deficits. Tech skills, or the lack thereof, may be some of the most pressing problems with the skills gap. That said, there are few areas that don’t see valuable skills leave a company with a departing employee. 

The need to integrate new technology, or to follow the progression of technology may also lead to a skills gap. People already skilled with a platform of technology may have difficulty training in a new platform or piece of equipment. 

Some fields, such as cybersecurity, are essentially a chase, with professionals constantly trying to keep up with or preempt threats. This may lead to gaps when a very specific set of skills are needed to fix a security flaw. 

All levels of workers in all departments experience the skills gap. What can HR managers do to alleviate this problem?

Closing the Skill Gap

HR professionals are able to help address the skill gap in a number of ways, including but not limited to

  • changing hiring practices, 
  • formulating plans to retain staff, 
  • implementing internal learning and development policies
  • cross-skilling

Before you can close a gap, you first have to identify it. This is done through skills gap analysis. This can be done on a case-by-case basis. HR can look into each employee and gauge the skills needed for the position relative to their skill level. 

Managers working with their teams and HR professionals can identify gaps in departments. Analysis may even be done on a business-wide level. This analysis may be performed to identify gaps in skill that may need to be filled for a new project.

Internal training versus external hiring

Ideally, training existing employees to fill gaps in skills is ideal. In-house training ensures that the skills needed stay in your organisation and thus provides backup solutions if someone leaves.

A recent report from Eagle Hill Consulting indicates that internal training increases employee mobility and employee retention within a company. Research shows that staff that receive internal skills training or other training opportunities feel valued due to the time and resources invested in them. Valued employees who are given training are more likely to be loyal, long-term employees.

Internal training at Xref

Xref takes pride in upskilling employees, ensuring that skills remain with the company and that employees have a career path they can follow and aspire to. Dan Soldani, the Project Manager at Xref joined in 2015 as a Customer Success Consultant, supporting the Customer Success team. 

During his time in Customer Success, Dan championed the understanding of how different HR software integrated with the Xref platform. As a result, Dan Soldani was promoted to Partnership Success Manager in 2019. 

When an opening in the development team opened for an Integrations Project Manager, rather than looking to hire a new employee to fill the role, Xref instead invested in Dan. He was promoted to the position and Xref enrolled in Agile Project Management and Business Analysis courses. 

Dan is now the Project Manager within the development team, overseeing how the different aspects of projects and products come together.

Unfortunately, internal training may not be the ultimate solution to all the challenges raised by a skill shortage.

Skills training and professional development

Rethinking the hiring process

The nature of the skills gap your organisation is experiencing directly influences the way it can be filled. If a new set of skills is needed, new hires may be the only solution.

Rethinking the hiring process and mindset may be a valuable first step when it comes to bringing on new staff. Hiring needs to be concerned not only with immediate skill but the ability and drive to learn skills that may be needed in future as well. 

Considering people from different backgrounds or age groups that an organisation hasn’t traditionally explored can open up a whole new pool of candidates. This pool of candidates may not have the direct skills that are being sought but may have transferable skills and a willingness to learn.

Transferable skills are abilities that can benefit employers across a wide range of jobs and industries. Examples of transferable skills include communication, teamwork, technical literacy, adaptability, organisation and leadership.

A candidate with demonstrated technical literacy and adaptability may be able to quickly learn new systems and platforms, potentially negating the need to specifically hire someone with a very specific skill set. 

Communication and teamwork not only help to keep a team or organisation running smoothly, they can also greatly help in training new staff or passing on skills.

Identifying “soft” skills that may improve “hard” skills

When looking at resumes, there may be a number of factors that indicate that an applicant is right for a job. Naturally, experience in a similar role or expertise in the skills required immediately stands out. 

There are also a number of so-called “soft” skill that may also indicate that a candidate can be a valuable long-term asset. These include interpersonal abilities, the ability to quickly learn and transferable skills.

What is indicated by a resume that shows a non-linear career path or a large amount of cross-movement within a company? To some, such a career path may be a red flag, showing that the applicant lacks direction. It may also mean that the applicant is willing to do what it takes and learn new skills.

Similarly, a resume that shows an employee staying in the same position for a long period of time with no upwards movement may be a sign that they have no drive. It may also be an indicator that they are a loyal and diligent worker. These contented workers may be happy to perform their role without the promise of extra reward.

Don’t overlook resumes of people that aren’t an exact fit for a position. Identifying those people that may have the drive and willingness to learn and adapt can help keep valuable skills within the company. This negates the need to search for new specialists if someone leaves.

Of course, training isn’t always an option, as some skills take too long to train or require highly specialised knowledge.

The HR skills gap

Human Resources professionals aren’t exempt from the skills gap. They may benefit greatly from cross-skilling in other areas of business. Cross-skilling diversifies the skills of HR professionals. It also helps drive insight into the skills and culture of different departments or specialisations. 

These insights can prove invaluable both for HR professionals themselves - learning new approaches or techniques that can help HR matters - as well as driving extra insight that can prove invaluable during the hiring process.

Jay Zaidi, Head of Talent at digital strategy consultancy firm, Rangle.io is a big believer in all staff, including HR professionals performing a “tour of duty” in other departments. This cross-skilling can expose staff to new ideas and techniques. These can be used to improve practices within their chosen profession. 

Training employees in a range of job functions ensures that there are always a number of employees who can perform a range of different tasks outside their particular field of expertise. This means that in case of sickness or employee attrition, someone on the team can perform tasks without the risk of affecting normal operations. 

Cross-skilling also allows employees to approach tasks from a new perspective.

In Xref, the Marketing team internally cross-skills so that in the case of an absence or attrition there is always someone around with the necessary skills to get the job done. Ensuring there are multiple staff members trained in various skills and platforms means that there is always a member of the team to keep projects running smoothly. 

As such, we have multiple staff members trained in social media and email marketing, as well as the use of specialist marketing programs such as Salesforce and Marketo. 

For human resources management, all disciplines are ripe for picking new ideas. Learning the techniques and responsibilities of executive management may be especially useful. A deeper understanding of management priorities and pressures can greatly help drive methods of minimising employee attrition.

With the pandemic driving remote and hybrid working in massive numbers, traditional ways of doing business are essentially a thing of the past. These relics include centralised office spaces, strict work hours and a lack of flexibility. Employees used to working from home or to a different, more work/life balanced schedule are unlikely to want to go back to the office five days a week. They may look for another position offering more flexibility somewhere else.

Initiatives developed to give employees flexibility in their work while delivering the same level of quality or efficiency as a more traditional work environment can help prevent valuable skills from leaving the company. Making the workplace more appealing to candidates can really help attract the right talent.

At Xref, we have embraced an outputs-focused work schedule over a more traditional 9-5 workflow. This means more attention is paid to work being submitted on time than having the emphasis placed on the hours worked. 

This leaves parents free to go on school runs in the afternoon without the fear of penalty. People with other commitments are able to keep them without having to worry so long as the work gets done.

A flexible work environment can help retain staff

Closing Thoughts

If a worker with essential skills leaves, then those skills leave with them. This can lead to interrupted business practices and potential difficulties in hiring someone to fill the position.

Ensuring that valuable skills are present is fundamental to the smooth running of a business. HR teams and hiring managers need to build systems to ensure that necessary skills are represented within an organisation. 

Once an organisation has identified the key causes of their skills gap there are many approaches that may be taken. These may include implementing internal training or cross-skilling programs. Organisations can even rethink their hiring practices to look for people willing to learn and progress rather than simply having the immediate skills needed. 

Increasing staff retention by creating a work environment that accommodates the changing needs of the workforce, such as remote or hybrid work arrangements can also help prevent valuable skills from leaving an organisation.

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