How to effectively fill skill gaps

30 June 2022


​An underskilled workforce can expose a business to risks, such as on-the-job injuries or material financial errors, just as much as a workforce with a lack of understanding of their role. The classic response to a skill gap is to put on a training course. Indeed, a gap in knowledge or skills is one of the situations where training can be the perfect solution.

But what about when the situation is not straightforward?

Most skills, such as negotiation skills, are complex. Once trained, the employee needs to be able to carry them out in different situations and conditions and to a consistently high level of expertise. Many training courses, however, provide "ideal" conditions for the task, which don't include the "real-life" factors that could cause an employee to be distracted or confused. A training course on negotiation skills, for example, provides a framework to follow and some tips, which can be practised in role plays. But each real-life negotiation will be different, and you need to be able to notice what is going on and identify the tactics the other person is using to respond effectively to the other person's strategy, whilst all the time trying to strengthen and preserve the relationship.

Also, some skills are used infrequently, and the training and practice are forgotten before being used in real-life situations. Examples include customer complaints, year-end account processes (which by definition only happen once a year), and having a good quality development discussion with a team member (probably only once or twice a year).

Many roles also require higher-level skills — particularly around areas of judgement. These can be difficult to achieve through training courses, though frameworks can help. Displaying sound judgement usually comes through experience, practice, and feedback.

Traditionally, apprenticeships have offered much of this experience, practice, and feedback for practical professions. People learn from seeing others carry out tasks, asking questions, and understanding the why. An excellent principle to follow is the "See one, do one, teach one" method developed in the 19th century for medical students. These students watched a procedure a few times, then carried out that procedure themselves, and then, when proficient, taught it to new students.

For accountants and finance professionals, the AICPA & CIMA Registered Apprenticeship for Finance Business Partners and CIMA's apprenticeship programme in the UK follow this principle by including on-the-job training, mentorship, and feedback.

Effective skills training

Training can produce results but needs to be carefully planned and implemented for the learning to stick and be relevant to the issues at hand. To design effective skills training, organisations may follow these five steps:

1. Understand the skills gap

Don't rely on your perception. Look to robust performance management processes to understand where skill levels need to increase and the risk implications of a skill gap.

To not be tricked by resource issues that disguise as skills issues, speak to those who carry out the task as part of their role. Ask them to walk you through the process. Which steps do they struggle with? Can they explain clearly what they are doing and why?

2. Focus on specific learning objectives

Well-designed training focuses on specific learning objectives that meet skill gaps. It prioritises what individuals need to know and gives them a chance to practise the skills in an environment similar to what they will face "back in the office". It will also help them understand the broader skills and principles and apply them to various situations. An example of this is giving the team members a set of questions or a process to go through before approving an invoice. This helps them apply the training to situations they may come across, rather than just the examples used in the training course.

3. Time the training

The timing of the training is critical. It needs to be near the time the skill will be used. For skills used on a day-to-day basis, that is not particularly challenging. But if the skills relate to a new process or system implementation, then training should be as near to the implementation date as possible (but not afterwards!).

If a skill is used infrequently, training should be accessible at any time — for example, in the form of a recorded video that can be accessed from the system used to perform the task.

4. Provide feedback

Feedback from the supervisor on the demonstration of the skills is crucial. Learners need to get feedback on what they are putting into practice — including what they are doing right. Care should be taken to separate the task itself from the method. The learner can carry out the job differently from the supervisor, provided the technique has the required result, and the task is carried out to the right level of rigour.

The trainers themselves need to have a unique blend of skill proficiency and communication skills to deliver the training memorably and give accurate, helpful feedback. Trainers should be trained in facilitation skills and get some recognition for the vital role they are carrying out. Too often, delivering training is a role given to managers who are already busy and don't feel rewarded for giving something back.

5. Test applied knowledge

Assessments can be used to demonstrate that a team member has sufficient skills to carry out their role correctly, but their use can be fraught with difficulty in determining what to assess, what constitutes a "pass", and the purpose of the assessment.

The practical action of the skill should be observed by a trained assessor, using standard criteria. If that is prohibitive due to cost or other factors, then any written test should focus on applying knowledge rather than the factual knowledge itself; otherwise, it becomes an abstract rather than practical assessment. Consequences for failing the evaluation should also be clear — usually, this will involve additional practical training.

The final question

Skills required today may not be those needed for the future, which means organisations need to constantly be looking for what new capabilities are required to carry out a role.

So, a final question — when was the last time you did a skills assessment in your function or business? Monitoring the requirements of tomorrow's workforce will keep you at the forefront of employee productivity and engagement rather than trailing behind.