When companies talked about skill gaps in the 20th Century, the discussion revolved around recruiting and hiring, aligning the right degree programs, developing internal training programs, and surveys conducted by the Human Resources department. Worrying about skill gaps fell low on the priority list and companies focused more on efficiency and standardizing core processes through Six Sigma and Lean programs to realize savings and gain advantage over their competition.

New employees arrived at their job on the first day brimming with confidence, but they did not yet know what they did not know – they were unconsciously incompetent. Within a week, their confidence turned into concern as they quickly realized the gap between what they thought they knew and what they actually knew might be wider than expected – they became consciously incompetent. With the help of some tough love, several lumps and bruises, and good old-fashioned on-the-job training, the skill gaps closed over time as they understood and efficiently applied their knowledge, thus strengthening their working knowledge to true conscious competence. 

As experience and mastery grew, the senior worker became unconsciously competent and soon forgot to share their knowledge with those new to the organization. Quietly, they transitioned to retirement, and with them went their knowledge and intellectual capital. Not to worry – the next generation smoothly stepped into their place and the cycle continued. 

Times are changing.

There are no longer ranks of employees with equal knowledge and skill waiting to step into the gaps vacated by those who came before them. In today’s 21st-century workforce, knowledge and skill gaps continue to worry leaders across all industries as the gaps increase faster than they are closed. In fact, there are 18 million fewer Gen X’ers (born 1965-1979) than there are Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964). 

If you don’t think this gap is cause for serious concern, think again. With 10,000 Boomers leaving the workforce every day, the losses are more than problematic. 

Learning is not an option; it’s an institutional obligation. In fact, according to the 2019 LinkedIn Learning Report, 61% of executives and senior partners are leaning on talent developers to identify the most important areas to focus learning and 82% of executives are actively supporting employee engagement in professional learning.

The subject matter expertise of talent development professionals is critical to help companies know which rocks to look under when it comes to knowing what to learn. More times than not, the answer is under their roof, but knowing where to look while keeping up with the dynamic pace of change creates challenges that short circuits what little intellectual energy they have left. Focusing in the right area is important and time is a valuable asset. How are most people gaining that focus?

  • 74% perform skill gap assessments
  • 66% use business specific key performance indicators
  • 59% ask their managers where weaknesses lie

Today, skill gaps are not unique to the newest members of the workforce. Unlike the 20th-century workforce, change happens rapidly, decision-making occurs at multiple echelons of the organization, and delegation becomes a valuable skill that the best leaders exercise often. Some of the most important solutions to organizational challenges will be solved by those deep within the organization.

Competence can exist at any level and on multiple, varying topics. While the most experienced member of the team may have competence in some areas of the business, the newest member of a team may bring new competencies to the table that rapidly become relevant based on ever-changing conditions. Someone will always be catching up, unconscious of their ignorance until something or someone clues them in. Leaders at all levels must know to look everywhere, and at all times, to keep pace with their competition. 

The point: everyone must continue to learn. And learning must occur across the entire breadth and depth of every organization. While the use of virtual and online tools continues to grow – up 5% in the last year – the use of professional talent developers, peer-to-peer dialogue, and human interface remains important to learners of all ages. 

For the first time ever in the history of the United States, there are five generations in the workforce. Traditionalists (born 1922-1945) and Baby Boomers continue to depart the workforce every 8 seconds, taking with them their knowledge capital. Those who remain realize there are skill and knowledge gaps that must be covered to ensure sustained effectiveness. In fact, according to the same 2019 LinkedIn Learning Report, 57% of Baby Boomers value collaborative, face-to-face formalized learning, as do 59% of Gen X’ers, 72% of Millennials (born 1980-2000), and 63% of Gen Z’ers (born 2001 – present). It’s not just the new folks who want and need to learn; it’s everyone. 

Companies that make learning a priority will outperform those that do not – but it must be done at all levels. Everyone, regardless of experience and time at the organization, must be willing to learn and grow. Learning is a behavior, not just an action. And leaders who want their organization to thrive must demonstrate this behavior at every level. In a 2017 Forbes article entitled, “The Top 6 Priorities for Building High-Performance Organizations of Tomorrow,” author Brent Gleeson rated learning culture as the #2 priority on his list and leadership development as #6. 

Today, understanding skill gaps, transferring knowledge, and intentionally growing leaders is more important than ever before. The professional environment is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Keeping pace with dynamic change must occur to sustain hard-earned momentum, but so must learning – and that may require expertise from multiple sources. 

Making a commitment to closing the skill gaps and transferring knowledge through learning requires deliberate planning and effort. Do not allow your organization to be left behind.