Upping Skills, With or Without the Boss

A new survey shows four in 10 employees went outside their company for training during the pandemic. Why that isn’t a great sign.

Amid the pandemic and the shift to remote work, companies last year increased their training and development offerings. That’s the good news. The bad news is a lot of employees found the courses inadequate and sought training outside the company.

To their credit, companies pivoted quickly after the COVID-19 outbreak to develop online training courses, helping employees learn new technology platforms, for instance. Data from a new survey shows that 42% of companies increased upskilling or reskilling courses. But apparently, it wasn’t enough: according to the survey, four in 10 employees took training courses on their own, either outside or in addition to their company’s offerings.

The data suggests that many employees aren’t getting the training they need or want from their employers, says Evelyn Orr, chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute. To be sure, Orr says most of the additional training following the pandemic was geared toward “figuring stuff out to survive.” While that was certainly needed, she says employees view training more as an “investment for the long term.”

The disconnect could cost companies trillions of dollars in lost productivity over the next decade. Korn Ferry research estimates that by 2030, demand for skilled people will outstrip supply, resulting in a global talent shortage of more than 85 million people and a potential loss of $8.5 trillion in unrealized annual revenue. In the United States alone, the talent shortage could cost companies the equivalent of 6% of the entire economy, or about $1.7 trillion.

Andy De Marco, Korn Ferry’s vice president of human resources for the Americas, says the challenge facing companies is even greater in a remote work environment. He says online courses often lack the direct access and personalized instruction employees want from their training. Survey data bears that out, with only 20% of people taking online-only training courses last year versus 70% who received hybrid online-offline instruction despite the pandemic. “People don’t feel like the company is investing as much in them” with online as opposed to in-person training, says De Marco.

Up until now, the primary focus of upskilling has been on digital and technological development. And while that will still be the case, the shift to remote work, coupled with the heightened attention on diversity and inclusion, underscored a glaring need for more training around so-called soft skills. According to the survey, 81% of respondents cited soft skills as most important for executives to have. Specifically, respondents cited communication, leadership, and agility, among others, as soft skills most in need of development.

The issue, says David Vied, global sector leader for Korn Ferry’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice, is that soft-skills training is most effective face-to-face. “There is a public meaning to it that is worth more than the content,” he says. Put another way, the shift to remote work will make it even more difficult for companies to train employees in the skills they need most. Vied says upskilling mid-career talent that doesn't meet with one another anymore “is going to be a big issue for companies.” But, he adds, as the survey shows, “people who need to learn a particular skill will figure out how to learn it, with or without their bosses.”