Employers should map skills for high-demand roles and employee growth

In 2017, I started working with my then employer’s HR tech team, testing an approach to track skills across the organization in an effort to better target learning offerings. The first problem we ran into was bad data. Employees entered their skills in our human capital management platform and used different abbreviations, misspellings, and vocabulary for the same skills. We standardized the data as best we could, but still ended up with nearly 30,000 skills across more than 2,000 roles. Three years later, after leaving that employer, I went back to check on the progress with skills mapping.  As it turned out, the team grew bigger and the systems advanced, but ultimately, they still weren’t able to use the skills data to create a meaningful impact on talent development strategy. 

My story isn’t unique. It’s one that has been repeated over and over again across many large organizations. As I talk with teams that are focused on skills mapping, the same problems keep cropping up: They’re overwhelmed with taxonomies, job titles, and responsibilities that are constantly evolving. The on-demand software platforms they use change seemingly every quarter. Some of these organizations have hired consulting firms to do the work for them, only to get mired in a two- to three-year project costing millions of dollars. 

Before you think I’m a cynic, know that I unequivocally believe the industry is on the verge of meaningful rapid reskilling as a result of machine learning and internal mobility platforms. Indeed, some organizations like Schneider Electric and Unilever, demonstrated their capability of rapidly reskilling their workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic. I would even go so far as to say that the work around skills mapping should still continue in some format or another in most organizations. Those who fail to invest in this while building infrastructure will surely struggle as the next pandemic, natural disaster, or supply chain disruption forces businesses to pivot rapidly. 

However, there is an unfortunate mismatch between the primary problem companies are trying to solve and the solution most of them ultimately choose. That is, when employers try to reskill workers from one set of roles (this usually includes a dozen or so individual roles) with a high skills match to another set of in-demand roles, employers attempt to map tens of thousands of skills across thousands of roles. This method is not only painstakingly laborious and daunting, but it can also result in very little change. 

Having many tools in your toolbox is usually a great thing. But in the case of, say, nailing a picture to a wall, the solution you really need is as simple as a hammer. Bringing dozens of tools to the project leads to an over-engineering of sorts, and you may tangent towards so many other tasks that the photo never gets hung in the end. If you somehow do identify all the granular skills you need amongst your thousands of employees, your workers will likely be kept busy with additional training and no actual jobs will be fulfilled.

Organizations should stop chasing these 30,000 skills as their primary focus. Instead, they should identify the five to 10 most high-demand roles they need to be successful in the future. Map the skills for those roles and then develop at least five pathways that connect to each. This results in building out skills across 15-30 roles. By focusing on roles that have the most critical needs, as well as the adjacent roles that require similar skill sets, companies can create pathways to jobs that will actually endure and cultivate a longer-lasting talent pipeline. 

When looking at which roles to map, it’s important to consider two primary sources: your business leaders and economic modeling (more on this here). Across numerous industry verticals, we at Guild have observed that there is a lot of demand for roles like software engineer, data analysts, marketing specialists, cyber security analysts, and project managers. In almost every company, these roles map directly into the skills of other roles where a high number of employees sit, like computer user specialists, sales specialists, and others.

Our business partners are looking for solutions to the problems that will directly impact them over the next year, especially when it comes to staffing. But if companies continue focusing on solutions that take years to build — like an entire skills mapping taxonomy — they won’t have the luxury of time, nor the credibility they need to see such solutions implemented. Instead, focus reskilling efforts on a few roles; the vital ones that both solve your most pressing business issues, and help build out the needed reskilling infrastructure for the Future of Work.

Written by Matthew Daniel
Principal, Employer Solutions