Learning & development and talent leaders have become increasingly aware of the skills gap: the divide between job-seekers’ skills and the qualifications demanded by employers. In some cases, this phenomenon has left jobs unfilled; elsewhere, it’s left workers with outdated skills on the sidelines of a growing economy. As technology and economic forces continue to reshape the world of work, we set out to determine how people’s outlooks are shifting.

According to Udemy’s new 2018 Skills Gap Report, awareness is increasing around the skills gap and the potential impact of automation and artificial intelligence on U.S. jobs. As employees gain awareness of this gap, they will look for companies and roles that will allow them to grow and prepare for the future.

The motivated, the optimists, and the passive

The report finds that US workers fall into 3 categories: the motivated, the optimists, and the passive. The first group, the motivated, are those who don’t necessarily see trends as positive forces but are driven by them. These people are pragmatic about the future, aren’t taking anything for granted, and want to be prepared. They’re taking control of their destinies by proactively upskilling, picking up side hustles, and following whatever opportunities come their way, even if that means quitting a job that doesn’t offer training or moving to another country for a job.

The second group, the optimists, includes people in management, workers with college degrees, and employees closer to retirement age. These people are well aware of digital transformation and definitely feel more personally affected by the skills gap, but they don’t seem concerned it’ll derail their career progress.

The third group, the passive, are those who aren’t doing anything to upskill. About half of our survey respondents said they are content to stay at a job even if the company offers no training. Overall, 12% say they haven’t learned any new skills for work. Not only do these people have the most negative perspective on their future prospects and the country’s competitiveness, they are frowned upon by the other two groups.

More challenges than ever

More survey respondents than last year, 84%, say there is a skills gap in the U.S. And 39% (up 4% from last year) feel personally affected by it. Men and millennials/Gen Z feel the skills gap effect most strongly.

Overall, 72% of respondents think skills needed for their jobs will change, and 73% say they’ve already had to gain additional skills to do their jobs. Again, men and younger workers were more likely to answer in the affirmative on both counts.

We found similar splits on questions about the impact of technology and career opportunities. More men and millennials/Gen Z believe automation/AI will be able to do their work within five years, feel limited by their geographic location, believe they have fewer career advancement opportunities than previous generations, and would quit a job where they received no training. As a result, both men and younger workers feel the need to upskill more urgently and are more apt to have undertaken some form of upskilling.

There were interesting deviations among other demographics, too. For example, 77% of people of color say the skills required for their jobs will change over the next five years, while only 69% of white respondents agreed. Similarly, 53% of people of color believe automation/AI will be able to do their jobs within five years, compared with 39% of white respondents.
The future belongs to the self-motivated

Those who see the writing on the wall recognize the urgency to upskill. They’re hungry and motivated to learn, and they’re already doing what it takes to stay relevant in a fast-moving job market.

Half of respondents overall said they’d quit a job where they didn’t get necessary training, but that number leaps dramatically among those who already know they need to learn new skills. 80% of those who said the skills for their jobs will change also said they’d quit if their employers didn’t offer the requisite training. Men (61%), managers (60%), and younger workers (66%) would also leave their jobs for better training at an even higher rate.

These self-motivated learners are exactly the ones companies want to hire. They may see more dark clouds on the horizon, but they’re not remaining passive and are finding ways to upskill, with or without the support of their employers.

Within this group of self-motivated learners, there’s also an overall tendency towards action beyond just learning on the job: 27% are more likely to have a side hustle and 31% are more willing to move to another country for a good job opportunity. People who’d leave a job where they don’t have access to training have a heightened awareness of economic trends that may hinder their career growth. That’s what’s motivating them to learn, even without their employer’s support.

Companies are missing a big opportunity to embrace continuous learning and empower their employees to pursue it. If they want to retain people who see learning as critical to their future success, companies should provide access to learning resources right in their moment of need.

Companies aren’t measuring up

Asked their primary resource for learning new skills, 34% of respondents are taking online courses, and the same percentage say they’re participating in company-sponsored professional development. This highlights a tremendous opportunity for employers to invest in their workforce and demonstrate their commitment to fostering a learning culture throughout their organizations. Not only are workers saying loud and clear that they expect employers to provide training, they’re actively rejecting those who don’t.

Even when companies do offer upskilling resources, they may not be going far enough. According to the World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs” report, “41% of employers are set to focus their reskilling provision on high-performing employees while a much smaller proportion of 33% stated that they would prioritize at-risk employees in roles expected to be most affected by technological disruption. In other words, those most in need of reskilling and upskilling are least likely to receive such training.”

Without Learning & Development, the future looks scary for employees and employers alike

It’s not enough to give valued workers a reason not to leave; employers have to give them a reason to stay. For half of the respondents in our survey, learning and development opportunities are a big incentive to stick around.

Corporate leaders and hiring managers may have been among the first to detect the skills-gap effect, but more employees are feeling it these days as they become aware of changes in the job market and the impact of automation. They’re sensing the need for additional training, and they’re showing loyalty to employers that support their upskilling needs.

Investing in people has never been more important: companies can close their own skills gaps and future-proof workers as skills continue to evolve. But they need to be thoughtful about it, empowering employees to drive their own learning experiences, taking care to include soft skills and manager training, and democratizing development opportunities throughout the organization.

If companies want to hire—and retain—adaptable workers with strong soft skills and a growth mindset, they have to commit to delivering robust learning and development and helping people advance in their careers. As the trends identified in our research continue to build, companies that fail to satisfy this need will find themselves struggling to maintain headcount—and business performance.

To learn more, download the 2018 Skills Gap Report here.

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