Here's why firms need to bridge the skills gap for mutual benefit

Graduate trainess are happy at their workplace. [Getty Images]

The labour market has always been a friendlier place for highly-skilled workers, and in today’s slowing economy, this is, even more, the case. Companies are embracing growth strategies that drive them to compete fiercely for skilled workers while contemplating job cuts for less skilled workers – a recent study PwC US conducted with senior executives found that 50 per cent are planning to make job cuts.

This trend has significant implications for the way we think about labour markets. Workers who lack the capabilities to compete for high-skill jobs risk being overlooked by management when its real responsibility is to engage them. Business leaders will find they bring institutional knowledge that companies often undervalue and have the potential to ease labour shortages as they go on a skills journey.

Unless a business is willing to play a role in upskilling, it risks exacerbating polarization in society, as workers who lack the advantages that come with specialists and scarce skills fall further behind.

A slowing economy will only accelerate this for those not prepared sufficiently with specialist skills, while people with in-demand skills will continue to thrive and feel empowered – increasing the size of the gaps and polarisation.

It’s clear that some believe the broader labour trends and the expectations of the current labour force will fade away with a slowing economy, but we think that the expectations and mobility of the skilled employee will continue regardless of economic conditions.

We need to do all we can to avoid the skills gaps widening, which is why I am glad that education and workforce issues are on the agenda during the United Nations General Assembly this week.

There is a strong need to help people at scale in developing the skills needed now and in the future – from tech to environment, social and governance and soft skills like leadership, resilience and global acumen to navigate the changing world.

By collectively investing in upskilling, we’ll see increased trust between employers and employees, citizens and governments, and across broader society.

The difference between life for a worker with highly valued skills and one without such advantages was clear in our survey of more than 52,000 workers worldwide.

Workers who believe they have skills that are in short supply are significantly happier and more empowered.

Eighty percent are satisfied with their job, and two-thirds feel listened to by their managers – both significantly higher than for workers who have less scarce skills.

At the same time, they are far more likely than other respondents to ask for a raise or promotion in the next 12 months and somewhat more likely to look for a new employer. They recognise their power in the labour market and seek to use it.

The picture is less promising for those who feel they lack highly valued skills. This group with a potential skills gap has a less satisfying work life, is less likely to have a plan to advance their career, and, as our survey suggests, is less engaged in learning new skills. Their employers are also less likely to provide access to upskilling opportunities than their colleagues with in-demand skills.

At PwC, we’re investing heavily in upskilling our people and society. Globally, our New World. New Skills programme is a $3 billion investment to upskill all of our 327,000 people, and work with businesses, governments, non-governmental organizations and local communities to accelerate their upskilling journey.

Over the last year, we hired 31,800 experienced employees while at the same time hiring more than 58,300 people at entry level to who we provide extensive training throughout their time at PwC.

We’re also creating multiple routes to attract talent into the network. We aspire to hire 10,000 Black and Latinx students into roles at the US firm by 2026. And in the UK, we recently removed 2:1 criteria for undergraduate and graduate roles to open up opportunities to more people, increase the socio-economic diversity of our UK firm and help improve social mobility.

Upskilling is not the only way businesses can help address polarization. Another area of focus should be on creating an environment where workers feel like they can bring their humanity into the workplace.

While our survey found that pay was the most important factor in choosing a job, finding a fulfilling job was only two points behind (69 per cent), and the ability to ‘truly be yourself’ at work was just three points further back. The desire to be your authentic self at work united the skilled and less-skilled, hybrid-workers and in-person workers, and the old and young.

A crucial aspect of that desire for meaning was business engagement in societal issues. Two-thirds of employees in our survey said they have conversations about political and societal issues in the workplace frequently or sometimes. The numbers are higher still among self-reported ethnic minorities (73 per cent) and younger employees (69 per cent among those ages 26 to 41; 13 percentage points higher than those aged 58 to 76).

These conversations are more likely to strengthen teams than polarize them. The vast majority of people who have engaged in these conversations report a positive impact – mainly being better able to identify with colleagues. The challenge for business is to help these conversations happen in a safe, respectful, constructive manner, not to stifle them.

Each organisation manages a very particular combination of factors as it seeks to navigate the change we are seeing in the world. But, there are some universals that matter everywhere.

Workers need in-demand skills, including skills needed to use technology – and not be replaced by it. They want their jobs to have meaning through the work they do, the way they are managed, and their place in a team.

Employers who get this right will earn the trust of their workforce, a crucial step towards delivering sustained outcomes for the business and for society.