What to ask from your employer if you want to keep your skills relevant

You won’t want to do this climb all on your own.
You won’t want to do this climb all on your own.
Image: REUTERS/Tim Wimborne/
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Upskilling. Training. Continual learning. No matter what you call it, chances are you’re thinking about it: the need to learn new skills so you can keep up as work changes. With a third of employees anxious about the possibility of jobs being automated, it’s no surprise that 84% of today’s workforce are willing to learn new skills. The question is, can you count on your employer to help you develop the skills you need to future-proof yourself?

A growing number of companies, including PwC, JPMorgan Chase, Amazon, and Walmart, are launching upskilling programs to help their employees learn the digital skills so many jobs now require. We expect most Fortune 500 companies will have an upskilling program underway within a year to 18 months.

But not all training programs follow the best practices for helping people learn. And given how quickly work is changing in industries like financial services, healthcare, manufacturing and more, you can’t afford to get left behind.

Here are four questions you should ask your employer about upskilling.

1. How will I learn the skills most relevant to me?

The last thing you (or your boss) should want is for you to spend time learning things that aren’t relevant to your job or your career goals. Effective upskilling programs help learners identify gaps in their personal knowledge and skill sets so they can focus on the areas they actually need to. Does your company have an assessment tool or app to help you get a baseline of your knowledge? Does it offer one-on-one coaching to guide your learning? Knowing where to focus and having a customized plan is going to be far more useful for you and your company than if you’re simply left to guess.

It’s also worth asking what skills your company needs most. AT&T, for example, has invested $1 billion in helping employees develop the technical skills it needs to stay competitive. Become a go-to person in the areas your company needs most, and you’ll be that much more valuable—and give yourself options if you want or need to jump into another role down the road.

2. How can I use what I learn on the job?

How often have you gone to a terrific course or conference, but then had to go back to your day job without being able to use what you learned or do anything differently? It’s happened to all of us. Usually it means you won’t actually retain what you learned. And since those new skills aren’t immediately relevant or useful, it’s likely to make you less enthusiastic about spending time on training and development in the future.

It’s much better for you and your company when you’re able to apply your learning right away. Before investing time in a course or some other form of upskilling, ask yourself and your employer: Where will I apply these new skills once I learn them, to make sure I retain them?  This also helps the company get the return on the investment they are making in your upskilling.

Does your workplace offer job rotations or shadowing opportunities so you can test drive your new skills in a different role? Are there special projects you can be part of that will let you use your new skills? Are your leaders open to letting you change how you do your work?

3. Will I be given time to learn?

Many of us are already swamped at work, and finding time for learning and development can feel next to impossible. Companies with more successful upskilling programs recognize this. Instead of asking their people to add learning on top of their workload, they carve out time for them to learn on the clock instead. Ask your leaders: Will I get some form of protected time, whether to take a day to go to a conference or a couple of hours a week to take a class? If I set aside time for learning during the workday, how will my supervisors help me protect that time?

Here’s another indicator that your company is serious about giving you time to learn: Your company’s leaders, from your manager all the way up to the CEO, actively encourage and champion learning on the job. They’re also leading by example and upskilling themselves. That tells you your company really is committed to giving people permission to learn and try new things—and the freedom to use time on the job to do it.

4. How will you support me when change gets hard?

Real digital upskilling is likely to dramatically change how you work or even lead you to completely new roles that are still emerging, like digital marketing, digital accounting, and quantum computing analysis. It takes six to nine months—sometimes longer—and a lot of effort on the part of employees for a company to start to see the results of a comprehensive upskilling program. Upskilling isn’t a one-and-done endeavor, either. You’ll need a new mindset and the ability to continually adapt and learn new things as technology and other factors change.

Staying motivated and energized is going to be a challenge for all of us, especially since employee burnout is real. How will your company help you feel supported? How will your manager help you manage your workload so you’re not overwhelmed and you have time to learn and adapt? Will they allow you room to experiment and try new ways to work, even if that means sometimes you fail?

Some companies are treating this investment in protected time and learning as a new type of employee benefit or reward.  Ask yourself… would you rather have your employer invest more dollars in your 401(k)? Or invest those dollars in giving you the skills to thrive in a digital economy?

Consider the culture at your company, too. Do leaders acknowledge and value the effort people put into working on their skills? Is it a place where people share what they’ve learned and cheer each other on? A social, we’re-all-in-this-together environment can make learning much more fun and enjoyable—and inspire you to keep going.

How will they help you stay motivated? Will they offer rewards and incentives, like spot bonuses, extra time off, or public recognition? Do they use gamification or social networks to tap into people’s competitive spirit? Can they give you the autonomy to use what you’ve learned to make your work easier or more efficient? And do they offer a variety of incentives? After all, not everyone is motivated in the same way. Think about what motivates you and whether your company’s approach appeals to that.

Start asking now

There’s a lot of uncertainty about how work will change, and when. Automation and other technologies are already rapidly reshaping many industries. For others, change will emerge more gradually. But make no mistake: no matter what industry you work in or what job you have, it’s likely to undergo dramatic changes. The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2020, more than a third of the skills we need to be successful—regardless of industry—will have changed.

That means upskilling has to become a part of your career planning. And asking the right questions of your employer now is a good place to start..

Carrie Duarte is PwC’s Workforce of the Future leader.