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Upskilling with a purpose: the key to transformation and inclusion agendas

Bhushan Sethi People & Organization Joint Global Leader, PwC US Mar 31, 2021

If your company is trying to build a more inclusive workforce, your upskilling choices could be crucial.

Most business leaders recognize that addressing the skills shortage is necessary to help meet business objectives. But they may not realize that it’s also critical for fulfilling inclusion agendas — and helping build a more just and prosperous world.

You’ve made commitments. You can’t keep them without upskilling

Your company may be among the thousands that have set goals to advance workplace diversity and inclusion in order to further social justice — and attain business opportunities by better serving diverse markets. Investors and recruits also increasingly favor companies with strong records of inclusion and that publish their inclusion data. But it’s challenging to find enough diverse talent to hire, just as it’s challenging to find top talent generally.

Many companies are also pursuing major transformations: acquiring and divesting lines of business, seeking new sales channels and deepening digitization and automation. These changes often require new sets of skills, which your existing workforce may not possess. These transformation initiatives may run the risk of sabotaging your inclusion agenda. Workers displaced by automation, for example, are often disproportionately women and people of color.

Upskilling can balance these needs: it can give employees at all levels the skills to fulfill your company’s transformation and inclusion agendas, while also helping to make your company a model that can impress investors, consumers and recruits. For their part, employees are ready to retrain, but their opportunities to do so aren’t universal. According to our Hopes and Fears 2021 survey of 32,000 employees worldwide, 46% of people with postgraduate degrees say their employer gives them opportunities to improve their digital skills, but just 28% of people without college degrees say the same. 

Effective upskilling initiatives have the potential to help create 5.3 million net new jobs globally by 2030, according to a new study by PwC and the World Economic Forum. Beyond those economic benefits, the report also shows that upskilling people could give them the tools to actively participate in the economy even if their current jobs disappear. That, in turn, would reduce inequality and lead to greater social stability.

Your company can do its part through a renewed emphasis on upskilling — with a purpose.

5 ways to build purpose-led upskilling

Purpose-led upskilling is a moving target, since it depends on your business, workforce and communities — all of which constantly change. The following ideas can help companies get started.

  • Monitor. As you pursue business transformation initiatives, assess the job losses they may cause — and how those lost jobs could impact your goals for a more diverse workforce. Determine the skills displaced workers will need to find their next roles.

  • Embed. When upskilling is a discrete program, many people may resist it as “extra credit” or “politically correct.” But when you make it an integral part of the workday (and an integral part of talent assessment), resistance may be less and participation greater.  

  • Stretch and support. If you wait until an employee is 100% ready, you’ve waited too long. Offer diverse talent (and all talent) stretch positions, as well as the mentors, digital training and virtual coaching. Even if some are not successful at their new tasks, they’ll acquire skills and experience they can use elsewhere.

  • Go beyond digital. You certainly should offer digital upskilling for everyone. But don’t forget that many of your workers need non-digital skills too, whether financial or interpersonal. There are still many jobs for which digital skills may be secondary.

  • Engage. You can’t do it alone — and you don’t need to. Collaborate with government agencies and academic institutions to help build upskilling programs that can truly benefit your company, your workers and your communities.

Help your people thrive

Remember, your employees are on loan to you. They belong first to themselves, then to our society and economy. When you implement upskilling with a purpose, you do more than help to boost your company’s bottom line. You also equip people with the skills that can help them thrive, and that helps make our society more just.

And if they take the skills you give them and go somewhere else, because your company no longer needs them? That’s fine. Maybe they’ll be future customers or clients. Maybe they’ll be brand ambassadors. Or maybe they’ll “just” lead better lives and help create more shared prosperity.

Either way, you’ll be meeting your commitments to your people and living your values — which is the best kind of success there is.