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How to build an agile skills strategy in the face of economic uncertainty

3 Feb 2023

Adrian Foley, the managing director for Access People Ireland, discusses what steps companies will need to take to develop a strong skills strategy during economic uncertainty.

In October 2022, the International Monetary Fund claimed that “global economic activity is experiencing a broad-based and sharper-than-expected slowdown, with inflation higher than seen in several decades”. The Irish economy has been unable to escape these economic difficulties, as highlighted by government action in the 2023 Budget. For example, a €1.25bn Temporary Business Energy Support Scheme has been implemented to support businesses with rising energy costs. As business’ budgets are squeezed, leaders are doing everything they can to stay afloat.

At the same time, employee retention remains top of mind. Businesses must take concrete steps to retain their existing workforce, to avoid the additional costs associated with hiring and training new employees. It is therefore not the time to cut down on learning and development opportunities, but rather a time to reassess and ensure that current offerings are in line with both budgets and employee needs.

Upskill and reskill your workforce

The majority (85pc) of Irish HR leaders are currently experiencing skills shortages within their organisations. There are a range of potential causes for this trend, including but not limited to reduced labour activity during the Covid-19 pandemic, increased career mobility, and a rising need for digital skills in today’s business environment. Upskilling and reskilling existing workers is therefore crucial for operational success, as many businesses are likely to be running with a skills deficit at present, which will ultimately restrict their growth.

Employees are taking ownership of their own career trajectory and businesses should invest in building a culture of ongoing learning and upskilling. The benefits of supporting staff in their professional development go beyond short-term efficiency gains. Offering access to learning and development opportunities can also encourage employee retention, as staff enjoy exploring their interests and expanding their capabilities. Ensuring employees are retained is crucial during this period of economic uncertainty, so that businesses do not have to invest additional capital in attracting new candidates.

Prioritise in-demand skills such as data literacy

Once HR teams have accepted the value of upskilling employees, they must carefully consider the content of their skills strategy. Especially in a difficult economic environment, leaders must make tough decisions about which learning programmes to keep, and which to cut.

According to Gartner research, data literacy will become a necessary driver of business value by 2023. Increasingly, organisations across all sectors are becoming data-driven, largely due to the consensus that this brings profitability. For example, data-driven organisations are 19 times more likely to be profitable than competitors that don’t leverage data efficiently. As such, many businesses are prioritising learning and development that centres around data skills, so that every employee can leverage key insights that are relevant to their day-to-day work.

Other skill development areas such as web development, social media and cybersecurity are seen as key priorities across industries at present. While businesses should consider these urgently, they should also look inwardly and consider the unique needs of their workforce. There will always be some skills that are of overall importance in the market, but these must be complemented by internal requirements.

Conduct stay interviews

Beyond general skills priorities, HR leaders should also focus on the unique needs of their business. Every organisation will be at different places in their skills development journey and checking in with the workforce is paramount to ensure success.

For instance, some businesses have taken to implementing so-called stay interviews. A stay interview can happen at any time during an employee’s tenure with a business and involves managers having informal conversations with their team to better understand their experience. It’s a way of gathering informal feedback from employees about their role and skills and if it aligns to their future goals.

Managers should feedback their findings from these interviews to HR teams, who can then adjust strategies accordingly. This is crucial during a period when HR budgets are increasingly being cut, as it allows organisations to offer targeted, efficient learning and development programmes which deliver success.

Avoid a one-size-fits-all employee experience

Ultimately, to remain competitive, organisations must deliver a unique employee experience for every staff member as they grow and advance their own personal and professional development. Gone are the days of a one-size-fits-all benefit solution. Key areas such as mental health support, subsidised childcare and expanded parental leave are critical as we continue to embrace home working. Investing in the areas your people care about most is crucial at this time, as businesses cannot afford to experience high levels of employee turnover.

Forbes reported on the Future Workplace and Blue Beyond Consulting’s research, Closing the Employee Expectations Gap, where they found that eight out of 10 employees say it is important for their company’s values to align with their own. Rather than dictating what employees should be learning, unlock their true and full potential by providing opportunities to explore their own interests and make their work more meaningful to them.

People are far more likely to stay with an organisation if they feel that their career plans and skills are valued and invested in by the business. Only by putting your peoples’ individual aspirations and ambitions first, and at the heart of your business, will you provide an employee experience that inspires, engages, and motivates them to deliver their best performance.

By Adrian Foley

Adrian Foley is a managing director for Access People Ireland.

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