In 2016, Bridging the Skills Gap Is Everyone's Opportunity

Looking ahead to 2016, one of the greatest challenges I see affecting companies and workers alike is the continued expansion of the skills gap -- the disconnect between the needs and expectations of today's employers and the current skills of our nation's workers.
12/22/2015 12:30 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2016

As 2015 comes to a close, we look back at a year of ups and downs for many American workers. Although the year brought higher than average job openings, it was also marked by a widening skills gap and an ever-dwindling sense of job security for today's workers. Even the technology sector is feeling the heat, with shakeups such as the split of a beleaguered tech mainstay and mounting criticism around the performance of a one-time tech star.

Looking ahead to 2016, one of the greatest challenges I see affecting companies and workers alike is the continued expansion of the skills gap -- the disconnect between the needs and expectations of today's employers and the current skills of our nation's workers.

Invariably, some companies will be forced to downsize in the coming year. When they do, these new job seekers will be entering a market unlike any before -- one where proven skills trump all and workers must constantly enhance their professional bona fides. In this new world, who's responsible addressing the skills gap? The employee or the employer? The answer isn't exactly clear.

Great Employees Make Great Companies

In a recent Fortune piece, Geoff Colvin takes an in-depth look at the new realities of the 21st-century corporation and predicts that human capital will become every company's most valuable asset. This, for many, is common sense thinking; however, companies must recognize that today's "great" employee may become outdated with the update of tomorrow.

Globalization and labor automation are accelerating the shift toward a knowledge-based economy, wherein a company retains its competitive edge by hiring those most willing and able to learn new skills. These "great employees" stay valuable contributors over the course of their career, even as their roles evolve to meet new market demands. Therefore, providing and encouraging lifelong learning opportunities isn't just another benefit that companies can use to attract new talent; investment in human capital development is a critical tool for survival now more than ever. Not to mention, it is always cheaper to train existing employees than to hire new ones.

Success, Delivered The Way Your Employees Want It

The resources for a successful learning environment can no longer be limited to traditional training programs. Today's workers expect to consume training content just like they consume every other kind of content -- on-demand via interactive video that's highly accessible. Likewise, as skills become more specialized, this training must become more specialized and tailored too. Companies can get the most out of their efforts by fostering a culture of continuous learning and offering training content in a way that employees will engage with, absorb, and maybe even enjoy, such as on-demand, interactive video that's accessible across devices.

The ride-sharing service Lyft is a perfect example of a company taking a modern approach to employee training. Earlier this year, Lyft launched "Lyft University," which facilitates the onboarding process by helping new employees acquire the skill sets they need to be successful. But where the Lyft program really differentiates itself from traditional training is by providing cross-functional paths for long-term professional growth. For example, Lyft University encourages and enables marketers to learn how to code; meanwhile, engineers are encouraged to brush up their project management skills.

It's companies that approach employee training like Lyft -- with a genuine commitment to skills training and employee development -- that are likely to stay ahead of the curve.

To Stay Competitive, Keep Learning

With the median job tenure for workers aged 20 to 24 now less than 16 months, employees today no longer approach their career with a tenure mentality. In this new knowledge-based economy, they'll need to have a more entrepreneurial mindset to advance in their professions. That means staying curious and availing themselves of the best opportunities to acquire new skills.

Essentially, career growth has become a question of personal ambition. Until recently, it was easy to feel optimistic that we'd all be able to hang on with our existing skill sets. But now, we've got a growing ambition gap between individuals who take proactive steps to keep up with the fast rate of workplace change and those who hope they can make it to retirement with their current skill set. Companies can't risk having employees who choose complacency over ambition. Instead, they should implement programs like Lyft's that support cross-functional paths and reward employees who explore skills beyond their everyday scope.

It Takes Two

Waking up in America is no longer a free ticket into the middle class. Today, both employees and employers must adopt a lifelong commitment to learning new skills. However, neither can do it alone. Companies have to offer educational tools and resources that make learning convenient and palatable. At the same time, employees need to step up and challenge themselves to keep growing and learning things that make them standout performers.