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Leadership ‘Upskilling’: How employees and businesses can seize the day

President and CEO, Toronto Finance International

“Upskilling” is a buzzword we are hearing more often these days as organizations grapple with the pace of technological change and the implications that has for their business. Simply put, upskilling is the development of skills an employee will need to perform the same role in the future.

While new technologies present opportunities for efficiencies, better analytics and superior customer experience, harnessing those opportunities requires a work force with quickly evolving skill sets.

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New graduates will no doubt provide one source for these in-demand new skills and capabilities, however, the reality is that mid-career employees (ages 35 to 54) make up 87 per cent of the work force in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.

Simply replacing mid-career employees with new graduates cannot provide the supply of skilled talent the economy requires for the future. Not to mention, it would result in a tremendous loss of institutional and functional knowledge that could be highly destabilizing, and even destructive, for businesses. Forward-thinking organizations are recognizing that a successful program of upskilling their mid-career employees is not only an integral element to their talent strategy, it could be a defining competitive advantage for their business.

As technology and innovation continue to reshape the business world, having the talent and the skills required to remain relevant and competitive is a priority. A PwC survey last year found that 80 per cent of CEOs globally are worried about the availability of key skills; 76 per cent are concerned about the lack of digital skills; and 91 per cent agree that they need to strengthen their organization’s soft skills in addition to their digital skills.

The financial services industry is arguably undergoing one of the most significant technological evolutions, which is presenting sizable challenges and opportunities to meet ever-increasing customer expectations, regulatory burdens and competitive pressures from non-traditional financial players.

Attracting, retaining and developing talent will be critical to the sector’s continued success, and there is a strong recognition that the industry’s mid-career work force is an integral part of the current and future talent pipeline. Given that upskilling this cohort will be critical to the success of the financial sector we represent, but also to the broader Canadian economy, Toronto Finance International undertook a report to examine emerging best practices in executing this transformation.

While this group of employees is often painted with the broad brush of being the least adaptable and lowest risk-taking layer in the organization, research indicates that mid-career employees are in fact ideal upskilling candidates. Mid-career professionals who are interested in skill development and embracing new technologies can capitalize on the opportunity that shifting job roles and skill sets can create. Experienced employees have institutional knowledge and soft skills they have developed over time. They also have specific functional knowledge and a demonstrated cultural fit that provides a valuable foundation to build upon. The barrier that often holds employees back from upskilling is the fear that volunteering for new training is self-identifying a weakness or lack of competency in their role. To secure the commitment to continual training and reskilling, organizations will need to foster a culture that inspires growth and learning. Those employees who are willing to step up to the challenge should be considered a significant asset, and a motivator for other employees.

A successful mid-career upskilling strategy should incorporate these critical five areas commitments:

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  1. Make lifelong learning a priority for everyone – Upskilling requires executive-level commitment, ideally with sponsorship from the CEO. Embed lifelong learning into your organizational culture and foster a growth mindset. The strategy should be inclusive, regardless of age, role or digital literacy.
  2. Identify critical future skills to drive both talent and business results – Prioritize the critical skills your organization needs to succeed in the short and long term, and understand where the gaps exist.
  3. Apply a multi-faceted approach to developing critical skills – Different roles will require different upskilling strategies; a varied approach will be required to have broad-based adoption and success.
  4. Empower people to embrace upskilling – Employees should take ownership of their own learning. Equip managers to be coaches and advocates for employees in their upskilling paths.
  5. Up the ante on experiential learning – Break down the silos and encourage talent mobility across the organization. Invest in systems that allow for agility and flexibility, and that provide people with more meaningful career experiences.

“Upskilling” may be a buzzword in the world of talent management today, but the end goal should be that it is a foundational element in the evolution of our economy. It is critical that both organizations and employees, at all stages of their career, adopt a culture of continuous learning. Canada’s work force will need to be more skilled and agile in the years to come if we are to maintain and grow our competitive positioning, from traditional sectors to emerging industries. At 87 per cent of the work force, investing in our mid-career talent pool is a must for the growth of our businesses, and the future of the Canadian economy.

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