Employees say they're keen on upskilling, but few actually do it – how can HR help?

'It's no longer sufficient to build a program, we have to get thoughtful about messaging and communication,' says DeVry expert

Employees say they're keen on upskilling, but few actually do it – how can HR help?

A new survey released by DeVry University found that a gap exists between what employees say they want from upskilling, and what they actually are able to do. It also found that women and people of color experience the greatest barriers to upskilling.

The survey asked U.S. workers and employers about upskilling, in terms of their interest is in it, and what access they have to upskilling programs at their places of work.

A key takeaway is the discovery of a “say/do” gap, meaning that although most employees say they are interested in upskilling, few of them are actually doing it. Also, both employers and employees almost universally agree that upskilling is important in the changing economy (96%, 97%), but only one in three employees think their bosses are providing the upskilling necessary.

Barriers to upskilling at work

The gap also exists in employee and employer perceptions of barriers; while 4 in 5 employee respondents said they encounter barriers such as family priorities and time constraints, employers report the belief that workers are “too lazy” or are not prioritizing upskilling. This indicates employers may be overlooking barriers, the report suggests.

But employers believe workers are simply not prioritizing learning or that workers are "too lazy” to upskill, signaling that they are potentially overlooking the barriers their talent may be facing in pursuing upskilling opportunities.

HR leaders might have something to do with issues of access to upskilling, said DeVry CAO (previously CHRO) Dave Barnett – even if they have the best intentions.

“It's a belief that’s a bit of ‘If I build it, if I build the program, they will come,’ and it's the best and brightest that will be the ones who are the hand-raisers and will come to it,” he said, but that isn’t always the reality.

HR needs to be more proactive with upskilling employees

The survey reported that eight in 10 employers said they offer company-subsidized upskilling opportunities for their employees, but only half of them use this option. Employees listed time constraints and issues of access as barriers.

“I think when we think about barriers, some of it’s awareness, and some of it is access, and feeling like there's a pathway to actually get engaged with learning,” Barnett said. “It's no longer sufficient to just build a program, we have to get really thoughtful about getting messaging and communication out.”

Utilizing DEI programs, business resource groups or employee resource groups for partnerships in upskilling programs are useful options for HR to implement, as well as internal mentoring.

Women experience the most barriers to upskilling

The most striking finding for Barnett is the wide disparity between women and men when it comes to upskilling: 73% of men reported having access to upskilling, compared to 56% of women. Also, 56% of men say they have accessed company-funded upskilling programs, compared to 37% of women.

Basic time constraints are a main barrier to women upskilling, he said, pointing to studies that show that home responsibilities fall more to women than to men statistically.

Barnett also pointed out a “like me” effect that has been observed, where women are more hesitant to pursue upskilling because they don’t see others like them in particular roles, such as in technology.

“Oftentimes, women don't see people like them in those careers or in leadership roles; there’s a bias toward people that look like or have similar backgrounds to them, and that creates a difficulty of entry, and sometimes a lack of confidence,” he said.

Thirty-six percent of women said “getting started” is a main barrier to upskilling, and 35% said family and other priorities take preference. Importantly, women are twice as likely to leave their jobs for other employment because of lack of access to upskilling, the survey found.

The report, Closing the Activation Gap: Converting Potential to Performance by Upskilling the Workforce, was sponsored by DeVry University, and conducted by research firm Reputation Leaders.

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