At Palette Skills, we are focused on helping innovative companies find the talent they need by identifying untapped talent pools and upskilling workers into new, high demand jobs across different sectors. In this case, “untapped talent” refers to people with strong foundational skills and abilities whose potential is overlooked by employers because they lack a specific credential or industry-relevant work experience. We are often asked about our approach to solving this challenge and the program model we engage to develop solutions. Before we began designing programs, we spent a lot of time thinking about the model, or framework, we should use to determine what programs to run and how to go about building them. The lessons below illustrate some of the insights we’ve gained over the years as we’ve tested and expanded on our work.
Training vs Upskilling
People often ask what the difference is between upskilling and training, and while no agreed upon definition exists, we think about the difference between the two in terms of the outcomes they aim to achieve. Training is about teaching trainees new skills to help them gain new knowledge. Those new skills may be leveraged by a trainee to move into a new job, but from the perspective of the training provider, the desired outcome is that the trainee has learned something new. Upskilling is about helping move someone into a new job. While learning new skills is undoubtedly a core part of that process, so is gaining the professional acumen needed to succeed in a new industry and successfully navigate the job search and interview process to land a new role. When designing an upskilling program, it is not enough to think only about the skills that need to be learned, you also need to consider the entire experience of securing a new job and all the challenges and barriers one may experience in the process. Once you understand that journey, the goal is to build an integrated program that addresses each of those challenges along the way.
Supply or demand
Knowing that upskilling is about driving job placement, the question then is how to go about building a successful program. From our perspective there are two ways you can go about doing it: using a supply-driven or a demand-driven approach. In a supply-driven model, you start with the group of workers in need of career support, for example, workers who were laid off from an industry due to the pandemic. The program is then designed around their needs, applying best practices for retraining, and providing ongoing job search support. In this model, the jobseeker is the primary “customer”.
A demand-driven model focuses primarily on the employers looking to hire. This approach seeks to understand what kinds of talent employers are looking for, what challenges they face in finding it, and how they are currently recruiting and hiring, then works on collaboratively building a solution that meets their needs. In this model, the employer is the primary customer. The program still incorporates best practices from retraining and job search support, but the design is informed at the forefront by employer hiring needs. With any kind of upskilling program, regardless of whether you use a supply or demand model, you are ultimately creating a double-sided market which brings employers and workers together in a way that results in successful outcomes for both sides.
Picking a model
When considering which model to adopt, we first considered our objective and desired outcome. Our objective is to ensure employers can find the talent they need by transitioning workers from other parts of the labour market into new roles, and therefore, our desired outcome is job placement. Job placement is our “golden indicator” because if we achieve it, that means the customers on both sides of our market, employers and jobseekers, have achieved success.
We ultimately chose to pursue a demand-driven model for two reasons. First, employers are the job creators of the economy and ultimately drive the economic growth that ensures that Canada remains prosperous and resilient. Building a workforce development approach that is demand-driven and industry-led helps to ensure our fastest growing sectors have the talent they need to remain competitive globally and ultimately results in new jobs being created. Second, from a practical perspective, employers hold the keys to determining whether a participant lands a job – or not. Palette can build the most rigorous program in the world, but if it doesn’t result in having candidates that employers are willing to hire, and doesn’t result in job placement, we won’t succeed in our mission.
Engaging your “customers”
While it may seem unusual to use the language of “customers” and “products” when thinking through this approach, it is helpful to think this way when teasing out who your program is creating value for, what their challenges are, and how you can reverse engineer a solution to address them.
Recognizing that employers were our customers in our demand-driven approach, we applied a “customer development model” to guide how we thought through program development, starting by better understanding the problem we were seeking to solve. We engaged prospective employers in “customer discovery” sessions to gain insights into their pain points, how they experienced these challenges, and how they defined success when looking at solutions.
These sessions unlock insights into an employer’s goals, challenges, pain points and existing processes which all provide relevant context to inform program design. What we often saw was that the skills and qualifications they sought, and their processes to find talent, often didn’t align. For example, we spoke to one company that went on at length about their need for maturity and experienced leadership on their team and challenges finding – while in the next breath they indicated that they primarily recruited their employees through student co-ops. Another employer was adamant that they wouldn’t hire anyone with less than five years of tech sector experience.
However, as we probed deeper into why and what they thought tech sector experience told them about a person’s abilities, it became clear to both of us that they were really looking for a series of skills and competencies that could be honed in many different sectors. Looking at tech sector experience was just an easier indicator for their already overworked talent acquisition team to use to weed out candidates. When we suggested that we could provide a way for their team to meet vetted, qualified candidates that they were currently overlooking in a way that was faster and more effective than sifting through resumes – by becoming a hiring partner – they jumped at the chance.
Asking the right questions
In these sessions, the best approach is to ask broad, open-ended questions that will help you understand the context employers are operating in. The point is not to validate what you think the problem is, or to get their opinion on an idea you have, but to better understand what they think should be considered when developing a solution. In these sessions, we asked questions such as:
- What are the top challenges you face in growing your company?
- Imagine this problem no longer exists and was successfully solved… What does that success look like? How has your work changed?
- What approaches have you already tried to solve this problem? What about those attempted solutions worked and what didn’t?
- Are others experiencing this problem? How is this problem impacting you? Your team? Your business?
Once we better understood the broader context that our customer was operating in, we asked targeted, but still open-ended, questions to understand their talent needs, such as:
- How have your talent needs changed over time? What’s different about the challenges you’re facing today?
- What roles are you most often hiring for and struggling to fill? When you think of an ideal candidate for one of those roles, what comes to mind?
- Where do you usually recruit from? How often do you deviate from your job post requirements (ie. hiring workers with different credentials or work experience than you define as required)? Do you have any non-negotiables for hiring?
- How do you decide to hire someone? What do you do to ensure new hires are successful?
Through this process, we began to better understand our customers’ experience and their requirements for success, allowing us to better speak their language and providing a starting point from which we could begin to reverse engineer a program. These conversations allowed us to build relationships with these companies, which we nurtured by continually engaging them in an iterative program development process to validate we were on the right path. As a result, by the time we were prepared to launch the program, we had a group of engaged employers eager to join our initial hiring consortium and contribute their time to co-delivering training.
We launched our first program in 2019. After three years and 12 cohorts across two provinces, we’ve validated repeatedly that the model works. Over 40% of our employer partners have participants in more than one cohort; and our SalesCamp graduates – our flagship program – get hired fast, with 96% of participants finding new careers in tech and tech sales since finishing our program.
With SalesCamp, right from the get go you know you are getting candidates with a commitment to learning and growing in their careers. Employers were involved throughout the process and gave us a chance to get to know the candidates in a way that a regular hiring process doesn’t.”
– Director of Global Recruitment, SOTI
Adopting a demand-led model for upskilling allows you to reverse engineer a program to meet your outcomes, reducing friction in the job placement process and producing a high impact program. As we continue to test and refine this model, our goal is to share our approach with other program delivery partners who can adopt these best practices. Designing upskilling programs that satisfy the needs of both employers and jobseekers helps to accomplish our vision of a Canada where all people thrive in a prosperous and inclusive economy.
Written by AJ Tibando, Executive Director and Cofounder of Palette Skills