Amid today's talent crunch, closing the skills gap has become a matter of investing in employees' professional development; it's no longer possible to simply hire what you need.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to alleviate today’s talent shortage,” says Aditi Jain, Senior Director and HR Business Partner at cloud communications platform Twilio. “It is one thing to be able to hire the right talent from the first instance, but the buck doesn’t end there. Organisations need to invest in their employees’ long-term professional growth, and continue providing the learning resources and tools to keep them competitive and relevant in the long run.”
People Matters asked Jain about what the skills gap looks like from Twilio's perspective, and what approach she and her team are taking to close it.
Demand for skills evolves 'at the speed of light'
Digitalisation is both a boon and a bane for tech companies like Twilio, especially after the last year and a half accelerated digital transformation – a boon because it drives their growth, and a bane because it outstrips their ability to catch up with that growth potential.
“As technology continues to evolve at the speed of light, so will the demand for skills of the day,” Jain told People Matters. “The rapid pace of digital transformation has always outpaced our runway of talent, and we have reached an inflection point where it is now a limiting factor for growth.”
And it's not just in technical fields, either: many companies are saying they face just as much difficulty finding people who are suited to the business function. Jain isn't surprised by this.
“One aspect of the skills conversation that often goes overlooked is the shared importance of soft and technical skills. There is so much buzz and hype around the need for technical skills, and everyone is racing to add them to their arsenal. But pure technical skills aren’t the only ones that are premium,” she pointed out.
“Business leaders today must possess a combination of hard skills like data analytics or financial accounting, but also the soft skills required to lead and communicate with different stakeholders. After all, they are tasked to make crucial decisions, stay resilient in the face of uncertainty, and manage potential conflict, among many other responsibilities. By no means is this an easy feat, so it’s no wonder organisations also face challenges finding such talent.”
Building a talent pipeline through the schools isn't easy either, although it is a reasonably consistent way of getting people into the industry. The issue, Jain said, is that education today is always going to lag behind the fast-changing environment.
“By nature, the school curriculum and workforce policies are developed in response to market forces, so there will always be an element of catching-up,” she explained. “Educators in particular must be nimble and lean on the larger ecosystem for guidance and timely industry updates, to identify what to teach this next generation workforce.”
Focus on fundamentals first
Given the way the skills gap is evolving, and the constraints on education and upskilling, Jain believes that the ability to learn is possibly more important than the skills themselves.
“What matters most is that the workforce is equipped with core fundamentals like an innate curiosity and desire to learn. This could actually help to democratise who can join and succeed in a tech company, as everyone is starting from ground zero and the barriers to entry are lowered,” she added.
Does the emphasis on fundamentals influence Twilio's approach to hiring, given that it can be remarkably difficult to hire for specialised skills today? Absolutely, Jain said – if organisations are willing to look at and for these key skills, their options open up enormously.
“We believe in practicing inclusive hiring to find the best person for the job, regardless of the role," she said.
"Rather than focusing solely on traditional yardsticks like work experience and educational qualifications, we keep a lookout for people who possess key qualities and competencies that are transferable across sectors, such as problem solvers, quick learners and effective communicators."
"These fundamental traits are especially critical for success in a dynamic and fast-paced industry like tech.”
What's more, she pointed out, keeping the focus on the ability to work across functions and sectors can actually drive internal mobility. Twilio's employees, she said, have been able to move to adjacent roles and new geographies – allowing better allocation of skills where they are needed and, in the process, making them happier and more empowered about their career journey.
“In the process, this flexible approach has also helped us define a whole new talent pool that has now potentially become available,” Jain added.
Develop cross-functional skills, and the rest will follow
Jain shared some details of Twilio's own approach to upskilling, which focuses on ensuring that employees have broadly applicable skills: “We don’t want Twilions (as we affectionately refer to our team) to upskill just so they can serve the company,” she said. “We adopt a more holistic approach to employee development and upskilling, including prioritising learning resources that equip Twilions with cross-functional skills that are applicable to daily life.”
She and her team use a range of tools and methods, including internal programmes designed to encourage employees to take ownership of their own professional growth and skills journey; regular check-ins to understand people's professional goals; offering employees full access to LinkedIn Learning courses; partnering with Lifelabs Learning to deliver customised training programmes; and conducting internal career development workshops.
“We work on developing behaviours, skills and mindsets that promote organisational agility, so our team can excel across both business and technical aspects,” she added, pointing to the twin challenge of finding business and technical talent.
Learning on the job forms the biggest part of this. Jain explained that Twilio adopts the 70-20-10 model for learning and development: individuals obtain 70 percent of knowledge from job-experience, 20 percent from interactions, and 10 percent from formal educational events.
“This has worked best to translate into tangible results, as our employees are more engaged and build the right connections both internally and externally,” she said.
She has a word of caution, though: in a very tight market, it's tempting to give up on hiring for skills and simply work on developing the organisation's existing manpower. Upskilling takes time, and isn't an adequate replacement for the new perspectives that new hires can bring.
“Companies cannot just focus solely on internal training and not increase their larger talent pool, especially when they don't always have the luxury of time,” Jain warned.
“It pays to inject fresh talent, and introduce new faces who bring with them unique experience and expertise, so that the business can stay dynamic and agile.”
Finally, she said, resilience isn't just a skill for employees; it can be an organisation-wide trait that will help tackle the skills gap and other challenges accelerated by the pandemic.
“Only time will tell if we can successfully overcome this challenge,” she remarked. “But if there is anything we have learnt from the past year, it’s that we are poised to be resilient and adapt to change, so I’m hopeful we will find our way.”