The 3 most important skills workers need to learn in 2020, according to business leaders

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The ongoing technology revolution has business leaders around the world racing to figure out how to retrain workers in order to keep pace with changes. A 2019 IBM report estimates 120 million workers worldwide will need to be retrained as a result of artificial intelligence and automation within the next three years.

That said, leaders continue to recognize that the skills that are most important for workers to succeed and get promoted don't have anything to do with new technology. Instead, they're most concerned with workers improving soft skills that will outlast the impacts of tech developments.

LinkedIn Learning's 2020 Workplace Learning Report found that leaders in learning and development, often shortened to L&D, identified three soft skills as the highest-priority skills that workers need to learn in 2020 in order to succeed and advance at work.

The 1,675 experts were provided a list of both hard and soft skills and asked, "What are the highest priority skills gaps you want to close in 2020?"

Niche technology skills such as mobile computing and cloud computing, as well as a general knowledge of engineering and coding, were lowest on their priority list. Fewer than 10% of L&D leaders said they were focused on helping their workers learn these skills in the coming year.

Here are the most critical skills L&D professionals said workers need to learn in 2020, according to LinkedIn Learning's survey.

1. Leadership and management

Percentage of L&D leaders focused on developing these skills: 57%

2. Creative problem solving and design thinking

Percentage of L&D leaders focused on developing these skills: 42%

3. Communication

Percentage of L&D leaders focused on developing these skills: 40%

Why soft skills matter

Tanya Staples, vice president of product and content for LinkedIn Learning, says workers need to improve the skills that can't be automated.

"Companies today want employees that can solve difficult challenges and dream up creative and innovative ideas that technologies cannot replicate," Staples tells CNBC Make It.

A separate report from LinkedIn found hiring managers were most pressed to find workers who had soft skills such as creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and emotional intelligence. But given the tight labor market and high cost of hiring new talent, organizations are finding that it's more cost-efficient to retrain current workers and develop talent from existing labor forces.

It can also be a good move to improve employee retention: LinkedIn Learning's 2019 Workplace Learning Report found that 94% of employees would stay at a company longer if it simply invested in helping them learn.

Demand for online learning platforms is growing

According to a report from Global Market Insights, a research and consulting firm, the e-learning market is on track to become a $300 billion industry by 2025, with 40% of demand coming from North America, driven by employee training needs. LinkedIn Learning's research has shown a drop in L&D leaders who cite budget constraints as a top concern for their organizations, and more than one-third believe their online learning investments will increase in the next year.

Whereas five years ago the majority of L&D budgets were dedicated to compliance training, organizations today are offering courses across a much broader set of skills, Staples says.

Udemy, an online learning platform developed in 2010, saw increasing demand for workplace learning solutions and created its Udemy for Business platform in response. Shelley Osborne, vice president of learning at Udemy, tells CNBC Make It that 80 of the Fortune 100 companies use this service.

LifeLabs Learning, which specializes in manager and leadership training, has doubled its client base every year for the past five years. In 2019, 700 organizations used the platform to offer employee training courses, ranging from communication and feedback to inclusion and negotiation, for companies such as Reddit, Etsy, Yelp and more.

Other leading platforms in the professional development space include Coursera, edX, Skillshare and General Assembly.

Who takes advantage of online learning the most: managers

While leaders are seeing the need to invest in employee learning, and they're dedicating more funds to do so, LinkedIn Learning data also shows those at the top are the ones benefiting from such resources the most. According to the report, CEOs spend 20% more time and managers spend 30% more time learning soft skills than the average employee.

Part of this participation gap could be that employees aren't encouraged to invest in their skills at the same rate leaders are. A majority of L&D professionals say it's not a challenge getting executive buy-in to invest in employee learning, but just 27% of CEOs actively invite their employees to take advantage of such learning resources.

Furthermore, workers often report they recognize the importance of learning but don't have time to do so, Staples adds.

Robleh Kirce, leadership trainer at LifeLabs Learning, says it makes sense that companies are more likely to invest in development at the senior leadership level, given they have a bigger impact on organizational performance. However, "For the highest [return on investment] in L&D, training programs should focus on skills that help managers develop their direct reports, not just benefit themselves," he tells CNBC Make It.

Tania Luna, co-CEO at LifeLabs Learning, adds that employee learning goals can be tied to individual, manager and department goals to encourage workers at all levels to prioritize using these resources.

Finally, companies overall would do well to view employee learning as a recruiting tool by highlighting them in job descriptions, benefits offerings and during onboarding.

"One of the best predictors for employee engagement and retention is employees feeling they are learning and developing," Kirce says.

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