The definitive guide to upskilling and reskilling the workforce

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At a glance:

As technological advancements and automation continue to rise, upskilling and reskilling is becoming more necessary. Automation allows organizations to increase productivity and ensure workplace safety, while not overworking employees. This efficiency, however, comes with a cost. Low-wage labor roles are becoming obsolete and displacing workers across many industries. Most of these workers are too young to retire and must develop new skills.  74% of workers are willing to learn new skills or re-train to remain employable.  

We’ve outlined the difference between upskilling and reskilling, the benefits and challenges upskilling programs face and how you can design, implement and measure an effective upskilling program.  

The difference between upskilling and reskilling

While both upskilling and reskilling are increasingly important for any industry, there are some key differences between the two. Whether it’s by upskilling or reskilling, you are ultimately learning a new set of abilities to better equip yourself to complete tasks.  

What is upskilling

Upskilling involves enhancing existing capabilities to keep up with the changes in your industry or organization. Upskilling helps individuals expand their knowledge and capabilities, making them more valuable and adaptable in their roles. It can involve various forms of training, education and professional development initiatives aimed at improving job performance and expanding career opportunities.  

What is reskilling

Reskilling is like upskilling in the sense that you are ultimately trying to keep up with the changes in your industry or organization. But instead of enhancing existing skills, you are learning completely new skills to meet the needs of your organization. Reskilling opportunities are becoming more prevalent with technological advancements that are making certain roles within an organization obsolete. In 2020, Deloitte outlined the median wage workers who would potentially be displaced by emerging technologies in the upcoming years. The majority of affected workers made less than $20 hourly.  

Upskilling vs. Reskilling, which is more important?

The easiest answer: It depends on the circumstances within an industry or organization. In the most generalized sense, upskilling is essential for continuous professional growth and can even happen naturally as a person grows in a role. Upskilling is the progression of skills that make a person more adaptable in their work environment. Reskilling becomes important when individuals or teams need to make significant career changes to stay relevant because their skill set is no longer in-demand.  

How upskilling and reskilling contribute to employee retention and engagement

Both upskilling and reskilling can help employee retention and engagement rates. Employees who are given responsibility and feel challenged in their role have a greater chance of staying with an organization in the long-term because they feel valued. Because of the new opportunities to learn and grow, and clear path to professional development, employees feel important and invested in.

Learning new skills often presents new challenges with temporarily slowed productivity or a larger margin of error because of the natural learning curve. But this learning curve also presents an opportunity for increased employee engagement. An employee who is learning a new skill is more likely to ask questions, engage with their team or utilize their Learning Management System (LMS) for support in their skill development.  

The benefits of employee upskilling

9 upskilling benefits for employees

1. Increased job opportunities

Upskilling equips employees with new or upgraded skills that expand their job prospects. It’s much easier to pursue a promotion or seek a higher pay grade with an expanded skill set.

2. Enhanced job security

Employees who elect to learn more skills are expanding their knowledge “utility belt,” making them far more useful to the organization due to their skills and adaptability.  

3. Professional growth and advancement

Upskilling is an excellent example of professional development in action. Learning new skills allows employees to continuously develop their knowledge and capabilities. Along with new skills, employees will often take on new responsibilities and face challenges that will further their careers.

4. Increased confidence and job satisfaction

New skills can bring a new sense of self-worth and boost confidence. Employees who have seen the effect of their new skills in action will feel more competent in their roles. This confidence translates to ownership and pride in their work, leading to overall increased job satisfaction.  

5. Improved performance and productivity

New skills bring new knowledge and understanding of the employee’s scope of work. This leads to employees working more efficiently because they have a well-rounded understanding of their tasks and the responsibilities of other team members. This wide-lensed knowledge enables employees to solve problems on their own.  

6. Adaptability to technological advancements

It’s no secret, technology and automation are taking over industries and making low-skill levels positions irrelevant. Upskilling (and reskilling) equips employees to navigate these changes and work with advanced tools and systems.  

7. Higher earning potential

Simply put, employee knowledge and skill level are with how much employees are worth to an organization. This does not always mean you need a degree to earn more money. Completing employer-offered certifications or courses through an LMS is a great way to build a case for a raise.  

8. Personal development and lifelong learning

Upskilling fosters a culture of lifelong learning. It enables employees to pursue their intellectual curiosity and broaden their horizons beyond their current roles.  

9. Professional networking and collaboration

Engaging in upskilling activities, such as training programs, in-person workshops, virtual classroom courses, etc. provides opportunities for employees to network and meet industry professionals. This networking can lead to mentorship opportunities, inspiration and idea collaboration and access to a broader professional community.

7 upskilling benefits for the organization

1. Competitive edge in the market

Offering upskilling opportunities is a way to ensure your organization is an industry leader. Regardless of what new technology is introduced or challenge you may face, you’ve ensured your team is adaptable and agile enough to face it head-on.  

2. Increased productivity and outcomes for the organization

Offering upskilling allows employees to become proficient in their roles and area of the business. With their deeper understanding of their role and function, they will be more suited to complete tasks effectively and troubleshoot autonomously. This ownership from the individuals leads to higher productivity for the organization.

In addition to increased productivity, outcomes will also correlate. When employees show proficiency in their roles, consumers, customers, patients, etc. Have a better experience. Good experiences with an organization can help build rapport and trust for your brand.  

3. Improved employee retention and engagement

The relationship between employer and employee is a two-way street where, when valued, both parties can benefit. By investing in your employees’ learning, you are more likely to retain your workforce and keep employees engaged. 94 percent of employees say that they would stay at a company longer if it invested in helping them learn.

4. Succession planning and talent pipeline

Upskilling helps build a talent pipeline that can be deployed when needed. This can be done through promotions (working upward toward a leadership role.) Or deployed to another location, branch or team based on unique skill set and need. The more developed your workforce is, the more options there are to ensure success across your organization.  

Pro-tip: Leverage a Talent Management System (TMS) to help track and plan your talent pipeline.  

5. Saves recruitment efforts and costs

Recruiting new hires is expensive and can take weeks, maybe even months. Gallup reports replacing an employee can cost two times the employee’s annual salary. Instead of outsourcing to bring on new talent, looking to train talent internally can save time and energy for HR, the hiring manager and the cohort being affected. While an internal candidate may not have the skill set, they already know the business, they understand processes and procedures and they are comfortable in their environment. While there will still inevitably be a learning curve, it will be significantly shorter than that of a brand-new employee. If you have employees willing to learn new skills, it is worth exploring those conversations before posting a job description.    

6. Positive employer branding

When you invest in your employees, the word gets around!. This reputation as an organization that cultivates learning and development will attract top talent. This becomes a positive feedback loop, making it easier to recruit and retain skilled professionals.

7. Builds a strong culture

Culture is an extension of employer branding. Prioritizing upskilling and individual growth in your organization will positively influence your company’s culture. Especially if one of your core values is in the realm of: growth, continuous improvement, innovation etc. Additionally, as a leader or HR professional, how your organization is perceived internally and externally is important. Providing opportunities for upskilling demonstrates you believe in investing in your employees.

Examples of reskilling across industries

Pre reskill
Catalyst for reskill need
Post reskill
Pre reskill

Pharmacy technicians solely worked in the pharmacy and were not permitted to administer care to patients

Catalyst for reskill need

Covid-19 response

Post reskill

Pharmacy technicians were trained to administer Covid 19 vaccines to patients

Pre reskill

Only those with extensive backgrounds in IT could attain roles in federal cybersecurity

Catalyst for reskill need

Labor shortage; The need for increased federal cybersecurity

Post reskill

Cyber security defense analysts completed a 3 month program and begin new careers

Pre reskill

The hospitality industry was known for having many moving parts and individual roles: Back of house, front of house, bellhop, housekeeping, concierge, etc

Catalyst for reskill need

Labor shortage accelerated by covid-19

Post reskill

Cross-trained gave employees opportunity to fill more positions in order to operate smoothly

Pre reskill

For many years, low-skilled employees have been hired as warehouse workers to perform repeatable tasks

Catalyst for reskill need

Industry 4.0 and the introduction of automated technology

Post reskill

Warehouse workers turned Robot technicians to oversee automated tasks in the warehouse

Challenges of an upskilling program

Addressing resistance to the upskilling process

Depending on the industry and the demographics of the workforce you’re trying to upskill, you can be met with apprehension. Few employees take lightly to learning their skillset may become  irrelevant or can be replaced with machines. But according to the World Economic Forum, automation is sweeping industries and at least half of the global workforce is going to need to upskill or reskill in the coming years to keep up.

Addressing these concerns begins with providing a clear path for employee success through the upskilling or reskilling program and ensuring retention for mission critical positions. Employees will need reassurance and support from managers, L&D teams and leadership to ensure a smooth transition into understanding the scope of their new role or responsibilities.

Dealing with lengthy or multi-step upskilling and reskilling programs

Upskilling and reskilling training can take anywhere from a few hours to a few months depending on the nature of the work and complexity of the skill set. In the short term, this can affect productivity. Offering flexible and engaging learning opportunities through your cloud based LMS can give employees ownership and satisfaction over their learning experience. Presenting a variety of mediums to support your upskilling or reskilling program can help ensure employees are thoroughly learning and give each learner the autonomy to pace their learning experience.  

Limited resources for upskilling programs

Upskilling programs can take extensive planning, budget and manpower to execute. In addition to an LMS, you’ll need an expanded course library that offers the upskilling/reskilling certifications and coursework. In some cases, you’ll need additional support from instructors or a training department to help facilitate and organize learning activities.

Tracking progress and measuring success of upskilling programs

In addition to the deadlines or upskill program timeline structure in place, someone needs to manage the progress of employee upskilling and hold team members accountable for successful and timely completion, especially if the elected courses will contribute to mission-critical roles in the organization.

Successful curse completion is an obvious way to track an upskilling initiative, but truly measuring ROI is not that simple. Establishing clear KPIs and outcomes for the upskilling program will help prove successful implementation of the initiative. (Keep reading, we will give some tips and best practices for measuring effective programs.)

Identifying skill gaps

This challenge is less about the upskilling program itself and more about how to structure and implement a useful upskilling program. It begins with accurately assessing the current skills levels of your employees and establishing what kind of upskilling they need. Across very large organizations with many departments, this becomes difficult for two reasons:    

1. Hiring: Every individual hired has unique skills and brings their own unique knowledge and experience to the table, making it difficult to map out proficiency in a generalized sense.

2. Backfilling: We all know things happen unexpectedly, and sometimes you need to backfill positions quickly. In an ideal world you would have a proper succession plan. But in the event that you don’t have a succession plan, you need to shift around your current staff and train them on a new skillset quickly.  

Often times, to truly identify a skills gap you need to comprehensively asses your staff either with some kind of test or live-demo. Both of these tactics require a lot of time and effort from employees, managers, the training department, etc. It’s also important to consider test anxiety and apprehension from employees, making it even harder to accurately assess the skills gap.  

4 Tips to design an effective upskilling and reskilling strategy  

Set clear objectives and goals

A skill gap analysis will help provide a clear understanding of where your workforce stands. Using this analysis, you can begin to identify priority areas and map out a framework for your upskilling and reskilling strategy. Be sure to compare this framework against your organization's goals to ensure alignment. Closing your organization’s skills gap through reskilling and upskilling should contribute to your organization's productivity, efficiency and competitiveness in the market.

Define KPIs for upskilling and reskilling

Similar to setting clear objectives, Key performance indicators (KPIs) will help you measure the success of your upskilling and reskilling program. Through your program, what are you trying to achieve? I spoke to broad-scale productivity and efficiency, but how can you drill down on specific, timely and attainable outcomes? Reskilling and upskilling programs can contribute to several HR KPIs including; employee engagement, performance and retention, to name a few.

Create a competency framework and career pathways for employees

To truly have a successful upskilling program, employees need to see value in the program and be able to see themselves reaching the end of the program to achieve their goals. For the employee, their goal may be a promotion, a raise, more responsibilities, a certificate, etc. Your upskilling program needs to communicate a realistic timeline for completion with clear benchmarks that outline proficiency in the skills being acquired.  

Consider this, a 12-week program where completion is pass/fail and dependent upon a comprehensive 2-hour exam seems daunting and might not interest employees. But a 12-week program broken into 3 units where each unit builds upon the previous, is a much less daunting way to test competency.

Additionally, it’s beneficial to help employees visualize their future with the company beyond their training completion. Providing a clear career path of growth is essential for gaining employee trust and growing your retention rate.  

Collaborate with employees to identify their aspirations and development needs

Engaging employees in the upskilling and reskilling process is a great way to make employees feel valued and get feedback from the people who are being directly affected. Input through focus groups, surveys and manager one-on-ones are all ways you can include team members in the development of these critical programs.  This type of inclusion can make employees feel valued and see ownership in the program, ensuring more buy-in from the ground level.  

Implementing upskilling and reskilling programs through a TMS

What is a TMS?

The Talent Management System (TMS) is a cloud-based platform designed to help organizations manage their workforce and HR strategies related to talent. Within the platform, you can expect to find resources for managing recruiting, onboarding, performance, learning and development, succession planning and other related functions.  

How can a TMS help upskilling efforts

A TMS does not directly help employees upskill, but it does help alleviate some of the administrative aspects of training management. A TMS oversees the entire training process giving a bird’s eye-view to managers, leaders and HR teams. This view helps HR teams make data-driven decisions about where to focus their upskilling and reskilling efforts. HR teams can design learning paths tailored for employees and the system can give recommendations based skills gaps or documented performance data. Managers can then use this data for succession planning.  

Succession planning in your TMS

Succession planning is, as it sounds, a strategic way to help plan for the succession of your employees through upskilling or reskilling. It can be done in any role, across any area of the business regardless of skillset or experience. Succession planning is important to the business because it ensures your team is prepared for quick and unexpected changes like employee turnover. Upskilling and reskilling your team helps maintain productivity and minimize distress when key team members retire or leave the business unit.  

It’s important to identify the key or mission-critical roles in your organization and establish a plan that always has those roles filled. Ongoing communication between managers and individual contributors through check-ins and meetings will help shape what your succession plan strategy should look like. The strategy should align both the goals of the business and the goals of the individuals on the team. To learn more about building a succession planning strategy, job listings website, Indeed has provided this step-by-step guide.

Measuring the effectiveness of upskilling and reskilling programs

Collecting and analyzing data to evaluate progress  

In section 4: Designing an effective upskilling and reskilling strategy, I mentioned using KPIs to help define the success of your program. When it comes to measuring an effective upskilling strategy, those KPIs are essential for evaluating the program’s progress and value. In any business, the numbers speak for themselves. But remember to be patient, most upskilling initiatives do not achieve immediate results. Employees need to achieve competency in their new skills and then apply them to their work. In some cases, this can take from 6 months to over a year.  

Be sure that your TMS will allow you to tailor reporting to meet your needs. Analyzing data should be ongoing either monthly, quarterly or however you see fit. You should be able to compare data from different divisions and teams across an extended period of time. Click here to learn about Learnsoft’s flexible reporting capabilities.  

When you’re building the case for proving your successful upskilling strategy, you’ll need to provide context that proves the strategy is working. Be able to provide supporting data around the circumstances of the training and the logistics of how the training is being applied to day-to-day operations.  

Obtaining feedback from employees and managers

In addition to quantitative data from reporting, you’ll want to include some qualitative data to get a well-rounded understanding of how the upskilling program is performing. Include opinions from every level in the organization that is affected by the upskilling initiative and diversify your data as much as possible. Ways to diversify your sample can include feedback from different locations and divisions, or it can include diversifying your employee demographics (age, gender, education level, etc.) These factors play a role in how effective the upskilling program has been in meeting the needs of your staff.

You probably don’t have the ability (and time) to go from location to location interviewing employees and gaining feedback. But don’t worry, there are easier and more effective ways to achieve the same results. Incentivizing the completion of a short survey is a great way to bump feedback rates from those employees who are on the floor and always on-the-go. Managers can also report employee feedback during ongoing performance evaluations. Once you have all of this feedback, how are you going to use it to better optimize your program?

Iterating and improving the upskilling and reskilling initiatives

Remember, you can have 10,000 employees provide feedback about the program, but if you don’t take action, then garnering that employee feedback was useless.  

Data is an invaluable way to assess your program and make the necessary changes to improve. Especially if this is your first time developing an upskilling program, you will need to make adjustments as you learn. That’s okay! The important thing to remember is your upskilling and reskilling program is not a one-and-done approach to solving the skills gap in your organization.  

If you learn your course material or upskilling program structure needs some changes, you’re going to want to be able to make those changes easily. The right LMS can make editing course content seamless, click here to learn more about learning management at Learnsoft.  


The need for upskilling and reskilling cannot be ignored

Keeping your staff skilled in an ever-changing workforce is not optional. A thoughtful upskilling program can help your organization stay ahead of the competition. Implementing an upskilling program requires understanding of the business landscape and identifying the skills gaps your workforce currently has and will need in the future in order to remain productive. Through clearly defined KPIs, attainable upskilling goals for employees, buy-in from leadership and management and effective measurement of the program, your organization will reap the benefits of successfully skilling your workforce. This proactive approach to skilling your staff has long-term benefits for both the employees and the business. Upskilling staff makes for an agile and adaptable workforce suited to face any challenge.  

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