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Reskilling and the Role of Mentors

The process of reskills can be full of opportunity but also with anxiety. Mentors are critical during these times.

It does not take long for a business or even its employees to be left behind, with the ever-changing business landscape due largely to ongoing technological advances. What may have been a necessity for an up and coming company 2, 10 or even 20 years ago may not hold much relevance in today’s climate. This applies much more to some industries than others.

Unfortunately, businesses can quickly get left behind when asked to list their competitors. Many businesses that have existed for 50 years will give you a list that has been passed down from marketing managers of old containing companies that do/sell a similar thing into a similar market. 

While these competitors are competing directly they are perhaps not the biggest competitive threat which is often overlooked. A provider of workplace products may list other workplace product providers that have been on their radar for years when asked about their competition but in real terms, they might be more threatened by Amazon or the newer “Amazon Business” than the traditional competitor down the road. If they are trying to sell products using natural search as part of their marketing strategy, they are competing with anyone who is ranking for or bidding on their search terms which may not even be a commercial competitor so to speak. 

An example would be a company who provides hosting that has prided itself on their security over the years. A search for “secure server” actually presents a top result as a definition of the term “secure server” by technopedia at the time of writing. Most hosting companies would not cite a site such as technopedia as a competitor but if technopedia is taking desired search engine traffic away from you, regardless of if they sell similar products into a similar market or just profit from advertising, they are competing on some level.

These examples show how easy it is for a company to be left behind and this usually happens due to a lack of awareness amongst employees of changes to the landscape. When this happens organisations often find themselves playing catch up trying to find someone new who has the skills required to do the job and drag them back onto the bleeding edge. 

What if there was an alternative to finding someone new? Finding a new employee is expensive, time-consuming, a risk and it also takes time for the employee to actually settle in and learn the ropes. Someone who has been at a company for a few months will never have the level of insight that someone who has been there for many years will have, true value comes from employees when they are able to apply their skills to a solid knowledge of the organisation but understanding both elements is key.

What is Reskilling?

Essentially, the basis of reskilling is to retrain or improve the skill set of an individual or a team of employees. Reskilling can also refer to a programme intending to make people who are currently unemployed more employable by expanding their skill sets. However, we will be focusing more on the enhancement of existing talent already employed in this article.

Globally there is an urgent need for the workforce to buy into the reskilling necessity due to the dramatic shift in trade, manufacturing and technology. It is estimated that by 2030 up to 375 million employees will need to shift their occupationally trained categories within their sector simply to keep up with the disruption related to these advancements. Where there are potential gaps within an individual’s skill set, it may seem like a simple task to find time and resources to fill in the gaps and keep them up to date with the latest systems, legislations and basic requirements that conform to a specific job, but imagine a world where up to 14 percent of the global workforce requires this type of training, not to drive things forward but simply to maintain the status quo. This is the world we are currently living in and a reality many companies are having to now face head-on. 

Rather than forcing people to update their skill sets many companies prefer to seek out young talent in the form of graduates and leave mostly middle-aged employees in the middle of their career behind, as highlighted earlier. Although this can seem appealing and give an organisation a modern feel, putting the years of experience on the shelf is a massive detriment to the organisation. Youth and experience need to work together in a truly diverse environment for an organisation to thrive. 

When a company commits to a program to reskill its employees and successfully applies that program it is effectively future-proofing its business.

Applying Reskilling

Committing to reskilling staff or putting out an announcement saying it is a business objective is easy but successfully applying the program over time is more challenging. Having a badly-run, stagnated reskilling program is arguably worse than not having one at all. Getting a program back on its feet that has all but died can be hard work. Reinjecting the initial enthusiasm and getting things moving the second time around is never as easy.

To successfully apply a reskilling program it is important to define the program’s purpose and objectives. Reskilling, in this context, is defined as changing the skill set of existing employees to stay ahead of the future needs of the business and training them for such new roles that require a new way of approaching tasks. Upskilling is very similar although it usually involves closing the gaps in knowledge in current jobs and tasks that mean employees are keeping up with the existing needs of the business. 

The bad news is that as automation and technology have eliminated the need for certain roles,. However, this advancement in technology also provides support in many areas which can be utilized as part of a reskilling program. For example software focusing on enhancing a mentoring program is a relatively new idea but already been used in many businesses and helping mentoring programs to thrive.

  1. Define your program

On a more practical level the first step of a reskilling program would be defining the reason for it and what it hopes to achieve, such as “ensuring that our current workforce are kept up to date with the skills needed to do their jobs so that they can evolve alongside technology and business helping ensure that our workforce are always equipped with the skills needed to do the job.” This could also be branded with a “job for life” type strapline that could imply that by having the program in place no one will ever be left behind. No one being left behind could be another potential strapline.

  1. Identify areas for reskilling and where skills may be lacking

Once this is done a gap analysis could be carried out which will help to identify any skills that might be missing in the workforce. At this stage people could also be invited to suggest areas they would like to develop their skill set. Reskilling is a two-way process. People may be aware of the skills that they lack or newly emerging areas that they would like to take an interest. This is also an opportunity to think as far forward as possible!

  1. Gaining buy-in

The next step is to gain the buy-in from senior and junior management teams and allow them the opportunity to complete training in the form of upskilling or reskilling dependent on business need. 

A real-world example

A good example is the dawn of the digital era of movie showcasing. Cinema was once a time where a projectionist would sit in a booth above the auditorium and lace-up individual reels of 35mm film to make up a two-hour spectacle for audiences the world over to enjoy. Eagle-eyed viewers would even be able to see the joins between splices and really appreciate this raw cinematic quality of film. The digital age was always due to take over at some point and that point came in the form of digital and 3D projectors that took away the need for projectionists carefully placing hundreds of meters of film onto platters in time for the next screening.  Instead this gave way to hi-tech, automated computers with their own built-in packages enabling films to play throughout the day without even the touch of a button. But with new technology like this comes a whole world of troubleshooting; problems that didn’t exist before; breakdowns that only someone in the computing world would know how to fix.

In this instance there was vast opportunity to train existing projectionists and management teams to use the new software, how to troubleshoot and maintain new equipment, and given the fact that the competition in the movie industry was high – every studio wanted their film displayed in the sharpest 4K picture – the turnaround in reskilling happened quickly. What this has done for cinemas and movie theatres around the world is not only save money in training up existing teams, as opposed to recruiting new ones but also set a benchmark for knowledge that now only has to be upskilled to fill in the gaps whenever there is an update.

The drawbacks with this approach to reskilling, especially in a field where digital technology is the hot new topic such as in the cinema example, is that it can be a daunting prospect for somebody in the middle of their career who has perhaps become comfortable in their work and has not had to (or had the opportunity to) even become involved in technology.  In their eyes it is not just “learning the new projector system” but rather learning how to use a type of equipment that they have never had to use before. When dealing with this mindset it can also be daunting for senior management roll out the training. 

Let’s talk mentoring

Long time readers of this blog or people who are aware of the usefulness of an effective mentoring program will likely have already drawn the line between reskilling and mentoring. If your organisation already has a mentoring program in place this can be the first step towards or a strong link in supporting a reskilling program. In the above example we explored some of the apprehensions longer-time employees may have had about learning to use new technology. If these employees were part of a mentoring program these early apprehensions could be easily addressed one-on-one in meetings where they felt they were able to openly express their concerns before formal training rolled out.

Mentorships exist to be a positive experience for both the mentor and mentee, where guidance and experiences can be shared in order to help both parties better their careers. Having a link with special someone in an organisation makes almost any stressful experience, such as realising the need to reskill, much less stressful. The experience of reskilling when shared with a mentor will also add extra value.

There are times that having a mentor who works closely with a mentee will actually uncover opportunities for reskilling that may otherwise go amiss.

In the world of employment where the option to reskill or upskill is becoming more of a necessity than a desire, there is more call for mentors worldwide to bring their experience and knowledge to the table to coach and mentor younger workers make their impact. A mentor can face the biggest challenge, especially when encompassed with coaching somebody during a workforce transition when morale can be low and exhaustion at an all-time high. By staying motivated and inspiring and encouraging their mentee to embrace the change, it doesn’t only hone in on certain skills but makes it easier to relate to somebody who has been through this kind of business change. Daunting tasks become exciting new prospects and challenges become opportunities… but who is to say that the fresh graduate mentee cannot share some of their insight with the mentor and help them where reskilling is required? It works both ways and in some areas, especially technology-related, the mentee may be the one with the upper hand.

The Future

It may be said that in this time of technological growth the competition may be stronger than ever barriers to entry are lower and cross border competition at an all-time high. 

Traditionally businesses have become used to hiring new employees based on their CV, showcased abilities through college degrees or other qualifications and lists of previous employment that highlight their key responsibilities. It is easy to overlook the opportunity to upskill talent with a knee-jerk reaction of “we need to hire someone who understands xyz” vs “imagine if the current team were experts on xyz” and the latter might just give an organisation the advantage.

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