Have You Unlocked the Potential of Upskilling? | Future of Field Service
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Have You Unlocked the Potential of Upskilling?

Much of the conversation around the skills gap centers around how to reinvent recruiting practices to yield better results. While this is important, so is a focus on retention. In fact, I’d argue that retention needs to be getting more spotlight because we know it is usually easier to keep talent than it is to bring it in to the business. Last fall, I discussed how to navigate the skills gap we need to focus on controlling the controllables. In this article, I want to talk about a particular area of focus related to retention – upskilling. 

Upskilling is important to better understand, because it can be a source of value for both your employees and your business. It can play a very important role in filling gaps you have due to the challenges of hiring as well as the evolving needs of your customers. And, when done well, it can be a tool that helps immensely with retention. 

Upskilling can be driven by different objectives: customer needs that you aren’t currently adept at providing, gaps that exist in the business due to challenges hiring or due to innovation efforts, and what areas your employees are interested in furthering their development in. It’s important to consider each of these areas so that you can maximize the opportunities that exist around upskilling. Depending on the industry, business, role, and individual the employee’s interest in or willingness to upskill can vary greatly. As you create an upskilling strategy, you need to ensure you are prepared to meet the needs of employees who are resistant to change but need to upskill in some way to maintain relevance as well as those who desire a career path where a continual progression of their own skills and capabilities will help them achieve growth. 

Upskilling Field Technicians

When we think about service specifically, we must consider how the role of the field technician is changing. We’re evolving from a job that is very transactional and mechanical to one that is far more focused on being a catalyst for customer trust, relationship, and loyalty. As such, the conversation tends to focus significantly on upskilling around soft skills. If you missed last week’s podcast, I interviewed Neil Thompson, creator of Teach the Geek and host of the Teach the Geek podcast, to discuss his personal journey as a product development engineer that found he needed to improve his communication skills when he was put into a position where presenting and public speaking was necessary. As a result, he’s created the Teach the Geek program to help others in similar position and weighs in on how companies can best upskill and reskill an engineering-centric workforce to have more soft skills.

One of the points Neil made very well is that for employees who you are asking to upskill (any who aren’t initiating the process because of their own desire to progress), you must remember to communicate the need in a way that connects the benefit to them. “It’s really difficult to be forced to learn something. So, if you’re a field engineer and you want to continue you to just do your job, fix whatever instrument there is, and then go about your day and rinse and repeat, then yes, those people would be difficult to upskill,” he says. “But if you’re a field engineer who wants the promotion and pay raises that you think you deserve, well, becoming better at communicating with others is a must. And, so, if you see it that way, then it’d be very easy to then convince you that this is something to get better at.”

Communication is King

Another thing to consider is that while we often think of upskilling as it relates to our older, more change resistant talent, we may have areas for which even new talent needs upskilled. For instance, you may successfully recruit a young technician with a lot of potential and strong skills in certain areas but who needs some work on customer communication. Two weeks ago, we had a furnace issue, and I called our HVAC guy – as he was looking things over, we started chatting about how busy he’s been, how the supply chain issues have impacted their ability to get parts, and how he feels about the young apprentices he’s recently hired.

He simply stated that, “my job leading this business is first and foremost as a communicator. Being personable, friendly, remembering customer details, providing prompt response, all those things are incredibly important. They are also very lacking in the younger workers who shy away from face-to-face communication and are more comfortable with their face buried in their phone looking at a diagram than they are returning a customer call.”

While soft skills are a very important focus for upskilling, they aren’t the sole area of opportunity. As companies progress further into their digital journeys, more skills are required there. As automation increases and menial tasks are eliminated, the need for employees to manage that automation takes the place of that work. 

We must also keep top of mind the reality that employees learn differently. So not only does ample attention need to be paid to communicating the upskilling opportunities available and their benefits to employees, but we also need to ensure we have a varied plan for how we deliver the training and education to achieve the upskilling.  

Critical Factors to Keep in Mind

As you consider whether you are leaving upskilling opportunities on the table, it would be helpful to look at upskilling not as a short-term solution to get a certain group of employees up to speed on one skill, but rather an important aspect of your continual improvement and retention strategies. Upskilling as a rule versus an exception allows you to regularly reevaluate what skills your business needs more of, for any of the reasons discussed above, and invest in “farming” those skills from your employee base. This gives you more leverage from the employees you already have, and it keeps those who want to progress and grown engaged and satisfied.

When determining what role upskilling plays in your long-term talent strategy, here are a few important things to keep in mind:

  • As you map what upskilling your company could benefit from, don’t forget to ask your employees what areas they are interested in or desire. Not all will be, but those who are will be very thankful you asked
  • Be sure to communicate the why behind every ask you make of your employees to upskill – as well as any incentives you are willing to offer for doing so
  • Leverage those who do have the most interest in their growth and skill progression to act as advocates for your upskilling programs – often the firsthand feedback of a peer is what’s most impactful
  • Consider co-creating an upskilling program on a specific area with an employee for whom it is being created – again, this gives the program far more credibility among its intended audience and ensures you’re hitting the mark with what’s needed
  • Be sure you accommodate different learning styles and preferences

Is upskilling a focus in your organization? If so, I’d love to hear from you and discuss! Always feel free to email me at sarah@futureoffieldservice.com

For more on how service organizations are overcoming the skills shortage, check out the report we recently published in partnership with IFS here