Is skills development an untapped benefit?

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Employers are facing a Catch-22 in the wake of the widening skills gap of their employees.

A new report commissioned by Spherion Staffing Services found employers fear that investing in skills development and training for their employees will make retention efforts more difficult. Meanwhile, 35% of employees are worried about not acquiring the new skills required to succeed in more advanced future positions, which could ultimately lead employees to look for employment elsewhere.

Although the “2016 Emerging Workforce Study” found that employers seem to understand these concerns and have attempted to make improvements, there is a discrepancy between what employees want and what employers think employees want. Nearly half of the 416 companies polled believe they have increased their investment in training and development programs during the last two years, yet only 14% of the 2,810 employees polled would give the training an “A” rating.

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“This goes back to the idea that you have to ask your people,” says Erin Peterson, vice president of talent management at NFP, an insurance brokerage and consulting firm. “They must have a voice in this. The days of central planning are gone.”

Not only is employee feedback important, but it also ensures that training is relevant to the job description; 45% of employees surveyed reported that company-provided development programs were not applicable to their day-to-day functions.

Keenan & Associates, a California-based consulting and brokerage firm, relies highly on employee feedback to influence its extensive training, which is made available to employees at all levels, says Suzanne Smith, senior vice president of human capital.

New hires go through a year-long training process at Keenan, which is “far more effective for newer account executives, but we really run them through the gamut,” she says.

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The benefit to providing such extensive training is that it will mimic real-life work experiences that might last years, such as consulting for schools, hospitals and municipalities. Much of the training material addresses motions at work and helps handle scenarios an employee might actually experience, says Smith.

About 88% to 92% of employees reported being satisfied or highly satisfied with Keenan’s training, says Smith. “Our grading has to be 85% or higher. If it’s not, we’re taking this back to the shop.”

Although employees expressed satisfaction with their training, Smith says the company is aware of retention difficulties other companies face once they provide training.

“It happens on occasion, when employees leave for money or for the commute,” she says. “We share that fear, but that can’t prevent us from providing training.”

The company, however, has changed its strategy.

Nearly two decades ago, Keenan would target recent college graduates and run them through its “university.” Once the program ended, Keenan’s competition would pay them $4,000 to $5,000 more, becoming a “training ground for all our competitors,” says Smith, with a laugh.

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Now, skills development is seen as an employee benefit and affects everyone from new hires to senior leadership. Those senior leaders recently finished a two-year emotional intelligence training to better understand communication and the role emotions play in the workplace.

After participating in the sessions, Smith now facilitates workshops with the rest of the organization. She found the emotional intelligence training helps employees become cognizant of why they make certain decisions, which in turns helps with problem solving at work. Both employers and employees in the study reported problem- and strategic-solving skills are lacking in the workplace.

Organizations that are forward thinking, Peterson says, are taking advantage of peer training for both hard and soft skill development. Employers are able to look within their company and find subject matter experts to give presentations and share their knowledge, she says.

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One method of talent development through peer training is incorporating book clubs into the workplace. Employers then can see what skills their employees are struggling with and find good content to use.

“Every company that has learning as a value typically has a learning management system,” she says. “It’s typically a platform which you can build and customize training.”

Peterson recommends platforms like, where employers can purchase a series of training sessions for employees to access; the titles include a variety of hard and soft skills, such as technical training, TED talks and interpersonal skills development.

“Providing employees with portable profiles almost gives them a kind of currency,” says Peterson. “Developing employees is something they value. When you add to who I am, that’s currency, too.”

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Training Continuing education Employee communications Employee retention Evaluation and coaching