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Fresh Tracks Canada CEO Sushant Trivedi, in Vancouver, on March 31.DARRYL DYCK

Many companies are boosting their employee training budgets to meet current and future needs and keep staff content on the job.

The idea of “upskilling” workers isn’t new. Yet, with many workplace trends upended by the pandemic, more employers today realize the value of increasing training and development.

A 2020 World Economic Forum report found 94 per cent of business leaders expect employees to learn new skills on the job, up from 65 per cent in 2018. According to the same report, this is in line with data that suggest up to 50 per cent of employees across sectors will need to reskill as new technology and a constrained labour market are changing the core skills required in many jobs.

Beyond ensuring a company can keep up with rapidly evolving technology, employers such as Sushant Trivedi, chief executive officer of travel company Fresh Tracks, also make upskilling a part of their larger employee-retention strategy.

“When people think about talent management, people should be looking at how can we develop skill sets, develop experiences and not silo people into particular categories,” says Mr. Trivedi, whose Vancouver-based company sells personalized travel packages.

At Fresh Tracks, employees can work in different functions for three months and then stay in that role if they enjoy it. Mr. Trivedi cites an example of an employee who has spent time in project-management roles, later worked on the product team and is now getting some experience in data analytics.

The company also has a program for all new employees to shadow a sales agent, a vacation co-ordinator and a customer experience specialist to learn a variety of roles and skills.

“Using those kinds of techniques to make the work rewarding for employees, that’s proven to be a successful thing for both the business as well as the individual,” Mr. Trivedi says.

Investing in skills to find growth and stay competitive

Experts say investing in skills training can be the difference between surviving a labour shortage or falling victim to it.

Bolanle Alake-Apata, an economist at the Labour Market Information Council, says investing in upskilling also prevents companies from falling behind.

“To remain competitive, it’s something that I think employers will need to consider,” she says. “Not [investing in upskilling] is a risk.”

She also explains the difference between a labour shortage and a skills shortage: A labour shortage is a lack of candidates for a job, while a skills shortage means there aren’t enough candidates with the right qualifications.

It’s important for employers to understand the difference because the strategies used to tackle the problems also differ, she says. For instance, if a company faces a labour shortage, the root problem might be a low population that can be addressed through an immigration policy. In this case, investing in skills training might not be the most effective solution.

That said, even if a business is not currently facing a skills shortage, Ms. Alake-Apata sees value in investing in upskilling workers as part of a broader business strategy. Data show investing in upskilling can safeguard against future labour shortages, as well as increase employee satisfaction.

Fresh Tracks is an example of a company that isn’t currently having difficulties finding talent but finds value in upskilling workers for exactly these reasons.

“For me, it is the perfect way to make one plus one equal three,” Mr. Trivedi says, explaining that upskilling helps to leverage the knowledge base, provide growth opportunities for employees and combine the two to expand the company.

By taking the time to speak with employees about where they would like to build their careers and providing the necessary training in those areas, Mr. Trivedi hopes Fresh Tracks can continue to adapt to future skills shifts and increase employee satisfaction. For instance, one employee voiced a desire to work closely with customers, so management worked with her to combine what she was good at with what she wanted to pursue and created a new role that paired her with an experienced manager.

Empowering employees to ask for upskilling

While managers are responsible for creating an environment that encourages upskilling, Mr. Trivedi hopes employees can be pro-active about their career planning and speak up about what opportunities they want.

Nicholas Chaffey, head of people at chemicals manufacturer BASF Canada, has seen a shift in what prospective employees are looking for and the types of talent the company is seeking.

“Early career folks are moving from door to door fairly frequently to ensure they find an organization that really aligns with their core values,” Mr. Chaffey says. “The impact that the organization is having on them … as well in the world – that’s at the forefront, I think, of many employees’ minds.”

He says BASF Canada is considering these sentiments by offering training for employees to take classes on new software or to train on diversity, equity and inclusion. The latter type of training fits into the company’s overall strategy of upskilling workers to create a more inclusive company culture.

While BASF Canada encourages structured training, it also wants to create an overarching culture of continual learning.

“It’s a bit more of an agile approach,” Mr. Chaffey explains. “We’re kind of building the plane as we’re flying it, so to speak.”

Mr. Trivedi of Fresh Tracks says upskilling isn’t just about sending an employee back to school or an online course but is an investment on the part of companies to mentor employees and encourage them to take on new challenges.

A 2019 report from Sitel Group found 30 per cent of employees surveyed have avoided asking for training for fear of seeming incompetent. Close to half of those surveyed believed their employer penalized them for not having certain skills.

Mr. Trivedi has been aware of this problem throughout his career and believes the onus lies on both the employer to create a safe working environment and subsequently for the employee to speak up.

Since he began working at Fresh Tracks this year, he’s already seen a large uptick in the number of employees interested in upskilling, something he attributes to the shift in company culture encouraging training opportunities.

Having seen positive results in the short term already, Mr. Trivedi says the decision to continue investing in upskilling workers is an easy one.

“I can assure companies that, if you don’t pursue this effort, you’re going to lose your top talent; you’re going to lower your employee morale and that is going to be an even greater drain on you and your business,” he says.

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