How to Close the Skills Gap with Employee Cross-Training

If you are a business owner who struggles to replace outgoing employees because your candidate pool falls short of the required skills, you have a very Canadian problem. In recent years, this “skills gap” has been a hot topic, not least during the federal election. Among Justin Trudeau’s campaign pledges was a promise to invest $750 million in programs that are designed to address the skills shortages which cost Canada billions each year. In fact, a recent report on this issue, by the Conference Board of Canada, shows that in Ontario alone $24.3 billion is lost annually from the province’s GDP due to skills shortages. That translates to a potential $3.7 billion in provincial taxes each year. Clearly, if Trudeau’s $750 million can put a dent in such figures, the nation’s taxes will enjoy a healthy return on investment.

The Skills Gap is Canada-Wide

As an employer in western Canada, do not make the mistake of thinking that the skills gap is just Ontario’s problem. The Canada West Foundation has recently partnered with a number of universities in Alberta because it expects that the skills gap will worsen if something dramatic isn’t done. Not only are the remaining baby-boomers preparing for retirement but employers have reduced their training budgets by an average of 40 percent in the last 20 years. Canada, it seems, has engineered its own skills-vacuum. Thankfully, our new federal government and Canada’s schools are putting in place education programs to boost the number of skilled workers, however it will be at least five years before you see the highly-skilled applicants that your business requires.

Five years is a long time in which the skills-vacuum can easily become a skills-crisis. Especially for small business owners, where functionality can be seriously impaired by the loss of just one skilled employee. Larger employers can be patient because they are usually able to attack the problem with money for the short-term. For example, continuing education is a typical win-win solution for such organizations affected by a skills gap. By sending an existing employee to school on the company’s dime, the gap is closed in the workplace and the suddenly-skilled-employee will likely feel loyalty towards their generous employer. Similarly, for the truly affluent organizations, it is not unheard of to hire a retired worker as a consultant who brings skills and experience to the table, albeit, at a price.

Small Businesses Have to Think Differently

Without time and money to play with, a small business has to find an alternative solution to its skills gap. This is where cross-training comes in. If your expert administrative assistant resigns, falls seriously ill, or is laid-off, it could have a significant impact on your organizational efficiency….unless this expert has already cross-trained their peers before the unexpected happens.

Skills gaps could be filled by someone who fits your company culture if you have time and money on your side. But if you don’t enjoy these luxuries, you might end up with a quick-fix hire who requires significant training at the company’s expense. Worst of all, if this hire is not a cultural fit, you may find that soon you are hiring once again for this position.

These scenarios are most critical when they involve essential employees, such as your accountant. Or your tech support who knows your business’s mobile app back-to-front. Or your sales guru who has mastered the CRM system over the years. It is generally accepted that company websites and apps are essential business functions these days but IT-related skill-sets are especially difficult to recruit for right now. Like it or not, it may be folly for you to have only one person who knows HTML and JavaScript attached to your company. Similarly, what would happen if you lost your accountant and there was no one around to process payroll on time? How would your business function if your employees got paid a day after the bank tried to withdraw their mortgage payments?

Cross-Train on Essential Functions First

Making the effort to ensure that your essential functions are well-covered is your quickest, easiest, and cheapest to answer Canada’s skills gap. This does not mean turning to your most effective multi-taskers and keeners to have them job-shadow the IT person. In fact, it may be more prudent to avoid giving your most productive employees even more duties, as they are likely to become overwhelmed. In fact, business analyst, Michael B. Bender, believes that you will actually improve morale by encouraging your more introverted employees to take-on cross-training opportunities. Even employees who are not outwardly ambitious recognize the value in expanding their skill set.

So, while it is not essential that the office manager can act as your permanent IT person, it is important that someone can perform the essentials of your IT functions in a pinch. In time, especially if the person being cross-trained is excited about their new skills, they may become qualified enough to fill that role full-time if a long-term skills-gap occurs.

Carefully Planned, Cross-Training is your Long-Term Solution

Cross-training is an exercise in project management that requires careful planning and sensitivity. No one likes to be told that their employee has envisioned them not being around, so soft-skills are essential to cross-training initiatives. Nevertheless, whatever short-term teething-problems your cross-training project experiences, it can prevent a skills gap becoming a skills crisis in the long-run. As Canada embarks upon a new era where skilled employees are going to remain highly sought after, be sure to mind the gap.