4 challenges employers should consider when scaling upskilling programs

In my years interacting with working learners, I often hear similar types of questions being brought up: How do I get started? How do I balance the change in work schedule, my kids, and the training? It’s been years since I’ve gone to school, can I even do this? Many of these questions come from employees from large organizations who started out at their company’s frontline and aspired to move into higher internal roles. They hope that by enrolling in an upskilling program they not only gain more skills but also increase their salary by a significant amount.

But gaining new skills isn’t easy, and many students face challenges that are common amongst frontline employees. A lot of these issues concern wraparound support, such as the challenges of re-enrolling in school, time management, and overall self-doubt. It is already unfortunate that such issues can negatively impact one employee, but when designing an upskilling program that accounts for the complexities of 1,000 employees, 100,000, or even one million employees, the hurdles can seem insurmountable and extremely costly for organizations. 

Companies who want to invest in upskilling programs often focus on finding quality content that will equip their employees with the skills needed to fill in-demand roles. Given the current labor shortage made even worse by COVID-19, it’s understandable that employers seek out the most efficient route possible, one that would help them win the war for talent and guarantee high program completion rates. 

But the issues students face that prevent high completion rates have little to do with content. Rather, it’s because the upskilling programs themselves aren’t functioning correctly in terms of scale. Oftentimes, employers will highlight the success stories of individuals who made heroic efforts to achieve their new skills and are now happy in their new roles. While this is worthy of celebration, training programs should be designed for the masses, not for the exceptional few. To do this, companies must design a model that accounts for the four common barriers that employees face instead of exulting the few employees who successfully overcome such barriers against all odds. 


Finance: The most common obstacle

Unsurprisingly, the primary barrier for most employees is a lack of finances, with 70% of employees citing this as a reason for not going back to school, according to internal Guild data. When designing upskilling programs, this is what needs to be unpacked the most. 

Traditional tuition reimbursement programs, for example, where students are expected to pay tuition costs first before being reimbursed, are common among employers. But for frontline workers who are not high-earners, are not able to take on more debt, or do not have savings on hand, this is not an effective model. 

One participant of a Fortune 500 company’s education program praised the program itself, but was discouraged by having to pay the costs upfront. “It makes you look so far ahead to say, financially I need to be able to cover these funds,” said the student. “I also need to exceed a certain grade, or else I won’t be reimbursed. That can be scary.”

Even before the pandemic, the Federal Reserve reported in May 2019 that 40% of American workers did not have $400 in savings to pay for an unexpected expense, let alone tuition. Models such as tuition assistance or debt-free programs, however, enable those with the least amount of means to move forward and pursue a training program without worrying about the cost.


Time: Not everyone has the same 24 hours in a day

The decision to learn the new skills necessary to advance in their career requires trade-offs. Finding time to learn such skills can already be difficult, but for those who must carve out time in between working and family responsibilities, it can be nearly impossible. This lack of time, known as time poverty, is a common barrier for workers who often cannot afford to “outsource” their responsibilities to third parties, like hiring cleaners or caretakers. 

If employers want to maximize results, they need to think of innovative ways to create more time for workers so that they can focus on their training. This can be done in a variety of ways. For example, adopting a competency-based learning model rather than a time-based model, offering short-form credentialing, or linking internal learnings towards college credit are effective methods that make the most out of employees’ time during their learning journey. 

New models are also being developed that create space for workers to learn on the job such as FutureofU, an initiative spearheaded by Accenture. Program participants receive resources and support with the aim to be hired at organizations that are looking to fill in-demand roles. Once hired, participants will immediately enroll in an upskilling program to gain any additional skills they need to do the role while still getting paid their salary. This model enables employers to broaden their talent pipeline and creates space for workers to gain new skills on the clock versus outside of work.


Navigation and support: Providing more than just ‘content’

Oftentimes, low-wage workers who participate in upskilling programs have participated in some type of postsecondary education beforehand but were unable to finish. The US Census Bureau reported in February 2019 that more than 35 million Americans over the age of 25 attained some college credits, but no degree. In addition, a 2020 survey from the Strada Education Network found that half of the adults surveyed say that “self-doubt would be a major impediment to their enrolling in postsecondary education, either because they fear they won’t be successful, have been out of school for too long, or a combination of the two.” 

Previous negative experiences with education compounded with the additional responsibilities of adulthood result in some workers hesitating to pursue an education or upskilling program. For upskilling programs to be successful, workers must have access to support resources that can help with motivation, self-confidence, and perseverance. Providing mentors or coaches alongside actual program content can dramatically improve outcomes. 


Career Coaching: Seeing the path ahead

Though the skills gap is often talked about, little is said about skills articulation. Put another way, how do workers convey the skills they already have in addition to those gained in training? And just as important, how do employers take a holistic approach at understanding what skills are critical for certain roles, versus drafting a broad “wish list” of skills? 

To mitigate this challenge, people often rely on relationships, and various research estimates that as much as 80% of jobs are filled through personal and professional connections. The challenge is that 20%, or 49 million Americans, “​​have no contact in their trusted network who can help draft a resume, connect with a potential employer, or provide advice with workplace challenges,” according to the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.  

Employers need to ensure that all workers participating in upskilling programs have access to a coach, or at the very least, a clear framework that can help them path their careers within the company. But a live person who can help workers think about their next steps within the organization and help them highlight the skills they’ve gained during any type of training or interview process would be an immense resource for employees.

The war for talent is only getting fiercer. Employers need strategies and solutions that enable their entire workforce to succeed, not just the exceptional few. Instead of piecemeal solutions, taking a broader, holistic view when scaling an upskilling program will help more employees overcome common obstacles and it will help employers maximize the result of their investments.

Written by Kenny Williams
Principal, Solution Design