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For businesses struggling to retain and attract new talent, a common challenge is employee pay. A recent report from Visier, a people analytics software company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, confirms that suspicion. The report indicates that 43% of the 1,000 US-based people surveyed cited wanting a higher salary as their top reason for leaving.

However, the results get more interesting in that the third most-cited reason at 32% of the respondents was “Desire to learn new skills,” followed by “Desire for better/more training opportunities” at 26%. While nuanced, these two points indicate almost 60% of people considering changing jobs are looking for new skills.

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Perhaps even more intriguing, 56% of the IT/Digital workers in the survey cited “Desire to learn new skills” as their primary reason for leaving.

Thinking beyond pay

Matching large paychecks can be challenging for many organizations, especially as new competition due to remote work, increased demand, inflation and other factors have driven up paychecks. Too many leaders simply throw up their hands and assume their best people will soon be emailing their resignations or that they should settle for lower-quality talent.

However, investment in comprehensive skill development could provide a way to not only retain and attract talent, but make your IT organization more effective. Increased paychecks certainly give a morale boost and might help with employee retention, but they’re essentially an expense that you’re unlikely to recoup in a quantifiable sense. Furthermore, an incremental dollar spent on salary increases might either help retain a single employee or provide a bump too small to significantly impact multiple employees.

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Spending that same incremental dollar on skill-building programs can not only impact more employees, but has the added benefit of making your employees more capable and valuable to your organization and the broader job market. Based on the Visier study, skill-building programs have an outsize impact on retaining IT employees, making this investment a rare triple-win.

You might even take this line of thinking to the next level and use your skill-building program to groom existing employees to advance to higher-value roles that you’re having trouble filling with outside talent.

Getting started with skill development

A robust skill development program takes some planning and should be integrated into your technology strategy and staff development and evaluation functions. However, like most things in leadership, don’t let a misguided goal of perfection prevent you from starting with some experimentation and “good enough,” especially if it will help keep valuable talent. Take a moment to investigate any outstanding hiring requisitions or external consulting requests that you have active. Are there skill sets that you’re sourcing externally that have long-term value? If so, then those skills are probably of interest to current and future employees as well.

Similarly, as you have regular conversations with your teams, ask which skills they’re interested in developing, and encourage your reports to do the same with their teams. Merely showing interest in skill development might save an employee or two who is thinking of looking elsewhere and following that interest with action will directly impact employee retention.

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You’ll likely identify a shortlist of skills that your organization lacks, where there is strong interest in developing those skills among your existing employees. This list should serve as a starting point for your skill development program. This initial program can be as simple as allowing interested employees to spend some time learning about the new skill and identifying small projects where they can apply it.

You’ll turn time that might be otherwise spent mindlessly trolling the web into productive learning time, and if you intelligently identify places employees can practice applying those new skills, you’ll also reap the benefits of their learning in short order. Not every employee will be excited about developing new skills, but if about half of your team feels they’re lacking the opportunity, addressing that concern will go a long way toward mitigating the risk of losing people.

It’s easy to throw up your hands and resign yourself to the Great Resignation being an unassailable force. However, smart and cost-effective mitigations like skill development can allow organizations of all sizes to energize and retain staff while reaping the benefit of gaining new capabilities.