Today’s business environment may be vexed by post-pandemic insecurity, complicated technological issues, and global supply chain problems, but there’s another concern that resonates just as deeply with today’s leaders: retaining talent.

In an age of AI and growing concerns about equity, companies must create an environment that encourages upskilling and reskilling in order to hold onto talent and help employees grow.

That was the overriding message from the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce’s panel discussion on Thursday, November 16, titled “Elevating Workplace Culture through Upskilling and Reskilling Strategies.” The event was the first program held by the Chamber’s new Workforce and Talent Council.

The event, which was held at Aon’s headquarters, began with a welcome from Denise Poole, enterprise client leader at Aon. She pointed out that attracting and retaining talent is an issue that reaches all the way to the CEO, because top leaders know continuity increases institutional knowledge and creates a stronger culture.

Poole then handed off the discussion to Meghan Parrilla, Aon’s VP of Global Early Careers, who introduced panelists Bridget Altenburg, CEO of Skills for Chicagoland’s Future; Jamaal Phillips, Senior Director of Learning and Development with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois; and Nisaini Rexach, Community Engagement Lead with Microsoft.

Phillips began the discussion by talking about how BC/BS conducted a survey to learn how workers felt about their options for growth within the organization. The results: employees largely wanted more opportunities than they currently had. To fix this, the company broke down siloes across the organization, encouraged engagement with others in different areas of the company, and worked to consciously create a “career development journey.”

Laudable efforts like this were even more necessary, the group agreed, in light of the difficulties created by the pandemic. Rexach acknowledged that the pandemic dramatically altered the workplace dynamic, but emphasized the importance of coming back to the workplace, saying that people who work remotely face higher obstacles than those who work in-person. She also emphasized the importance of increasing diverse representation as a way to remove barriers, noting it makes employees optimistic to see “someone who looks like you” in a position of authority.

The group noted that AI’s growing role in the job search brings both benefits and pitfalls. Artificial intelligence can make it easier for job-seekers to apply for jobs, as well as helping companies looking to expand their hiring. One downside, Altenburg noted, is that AI can inadvertently perpetuate harmful bias: “What if bias is written into the algorithm?” she asked.

To encourage upskilling and reskilling within businesses, the group noted the importance of opening positions beyond the obvious required skills. Because, they reasoned, employees often develop skills that can seamlessly fit with areas outside their original expertise. “Think broadly about transferable skills that might add value even if the employee doesn’t have a certain specific skill,” Phillips said.

Altenburg also pointed out that certain degree requirements can be limiting, noting a former mentor of hers had a degree in the seemingly unrelated field of kinesiology.

In the Q&A section, an audience member asked about hiring for workers with disabilities, and another mentioned hiring people who were previously incarcerated. The group agreed that greater efforts need to be made in both areas, and intentional, thoughtful outreach efforts are critical. Also, embracing fair chance hiring for those justice-impacted not only benefits individuals, but also enriches organizational diversity.

In their conclusion, the group agreed that businesses needed to consciously create an open environment that focuses on retention, diversity, and inclusion. “If your company isn’t being deliberate about engaging with diverse groups, you have to address that right away,” Rexach said. 

11.16.2023 Elevating Workplace Culture through Upskilling and Reskilling Strategies