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Three ways to upskill your tech teams during times of crisis

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Duncan Andison)

As the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about widespread stay-at-home orders around the world, it has also forced B2B companies of all sizes to go wholly digital — in turn, putting unprecedented pressure on their tech teams. Suddenly, IT departments are having to implement and support new sophisticated technical systems to facilitate remote work and keep customers happy and engaged. In short, the fate of many B2B companies rests on the shoulders of technologists.

Adding to the pressure is the fact that many businesses are scrambling to control costs during the pandemic by halting investments in hiring. According to a survey by Willis Towers Watson, more than 40 per cent of companies have either frozen or reduced hiring, with another 28 per cent considering making that move in the near future.

Given that, for many, bringing new tech talent on board is simply not an option right now or in the foreseeable future, B2B companies need to ensure their existing workers have the necessary skills to meet their company’s changing needs.

B2B businesses have always been hungry for tech talent

In reality, this is a new challenge only in terms of its scope. Over the past decade, nontech companies have increasingly relied on tech talent to remain competitive. The vast majority (90 per cent) of IT jobs can be found in 10 nontech industries, meaning only 10 per cent of tech jobs are actually within the tech sector. From 2013 to 2018, IT jobs in tech grew by 40 per cent, but for nontech industries, that growth rate reached an astounding 65 per cent over the same time period.

Before the Covid-19 crisis, the idea that every company needs to be a tech company to thrive was already commonplace. Now, however, the stakes are even higher: Every company needs to be a tech company to survive. Even small businesses are having to rely heavily on their websites, pivot to online ordering systems, and find other creative new ways to connect with their customers digitally.

The tech transformation isn’t just customer-facing, either; the shift also has to occur internally. To operate effectively while adhering to social-distancing guidelines, companies must rely on internal technical products and services to keep their teams connected.

Without the ability to hire new tech talent, companies must, instead, teach the staff they already have to handle these rapidly expanding tech needs. It turns out there’s a major upside to this tactic: Upskilling is much more cost-efficient than looking externally to fill shifting tech needs. Hiring a new employee costs around $3,500, not to mention the extra time and expenses of recruitment and onboarding. It’s not surprising that, according to a recent report on talent trends from PwC, executives reported retraining and upskilling as the most important areas to focus on for talent acquisition when trying to fill the skills gap.

Upskilling your tech team can solve the IT challenges posed by Covid-19

Even if you’re unable to bring on new tech talent to bridge the gaps in your IT needs pre- and post-Covid-19 outbreak, you can still help your existing team meet your company’s needs by focusing on reinforcing and improving their skills and resources. What do they need to support the company effectively, and how can you give it to them?

Although it may seem counterproductive in a time of economic crisis, now is a great time to invest in upskilling your employees. Not only will it help your company rise up to meet new IT challenges now, but it’s also a solid long-term strategy that will increase your success in the future. Here’s how to start:

1. Look for opportunities to move workers into higher-tech roles. It’s hardly news that automation is displacing many lower-skilled workers, but the Covid-19 pandemic is speeding up the process. Automation doesn’t have to mean shrinking the workforce, however. Take a look at your tasks or processes. What can be automated? How can the workers responsible for those tasks be reskilled to higher-tech roles?

2. Identify your rising stars and get them involved in the process. Start by examining your current employees and identifying who has the passion, drive, and aptitude for learning new skills or taking on new responsibilities. Then, engage them in a plan for their new skill-building. Work together to determine what skills are most needed and how they will go about learning them. When employees play an active role in their own reskilling process, they’ll more eagerly take ownership of it.

3. Allocate resources to allow your employees to learn new skills on the job. These are stressful times for all of us; the last thing you want to do is expect your employees to work a bunch of overtime learning new tasks and taking on new responsibilities. Carve out time and resources during the workday to make sure they can focus on their professional development. For instance, consider dedicating either a whole day, a half day, or a regular block of time each week for employees to learn new skills.

If upskilling won’t be enough, consider an apprenticeship programme

If upskilling won’t be enough to cover your company’s tech needs, consider alternative, lower-risk ways to bring new tech talent on board, such as apprenticeship programmes. To get an internal tech apprenticeship programme started, assess both your current needs and how apprentices will work with your team.

Ask yourself the following questions: What skill is your team lacking? What are the minimum qualifications potential apprentices need to have? Does your team have the capacity to oversee an apprentice and train and mentor him or her? How many apprentices do you need? What can you pay apprentices? Can you create a pathway to employment for successful apprentices? Use your answers to guide the design and details of your apprenticeship programme.

Although the current turbulent times feel as if they will last forever, the pandemic will eventually subside. Yes, the Covid-19 crisis is adding a lot of stress on many companies’ IT teams, but it also offers an opportunity to give your technologists the opportunity to learn new skills, take on more responsibility, and build more resilient processes. Investing in your IT team now could positively transform the way your company operates far beyond the effects of this pandemic

Jeff Mazur, executive director, LaunchCode

Jeff Mazur is the executive director for LaunchCode, a non-profit organisation aiming to fill the gap in tech talent by matching companies with trained individuals.