What is upskilling?

In its most basic sense, upskilling is the process of learning new skills. It’s a way to bridge the skills gap brought on by constant change, keeps your company competitive and your employees more productive. Skills can range from soft skills to technical and digital skills. Upskilling not only improves your business’s competitive advantage, but also improves your workers’ employability. Upskilling means you’re investing in your current workforce to help them better meet the needs of a more digital world.

Why is upskilling so important?

COVID-19 has taught us how important planning for the future and managing change is. The need for upskilling your workforce is a result of constantly changing and improving technologies. This is true across industries, as developments are made faster than ever before, keeping your people up to date gives customers the best experience possible.

The benefits of upskilling extend beyond beating the competition. A June 2020 survey from learning management system TalentLMS found:

  • 42 percent of companies stepped up their upskilling efforts after the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • 91 percent of companies (and 81 percent of employees) said upskilling training has boosted productivity at work.

benefits of upskilling

PwC, 23rd Annual Global CEO Survey

5 steps to upskill your workforce

    1. What skills should we train for?

      What skills or competencies do you need now, and will you need in the future? This is probably the hardest step of building an upskilling program; you don’t want to invest resources on building skills you don’t actually need.

      The first step is to examine your current workforce – what skills do they have? Then, examine your future business plans and objectives? Once those are done you can identify the gaps between what you have and what you would like to have. It’s here that you will be able to determine what skills and competencies will get you to where you want to be. We suggest looking at how transferrable skills and technical skills can fill these gaps.

      • Transferrable soft skills help make your workforce more adaptable so they can successfully navigate change, no matter what the change is. Think skills like problem-solving, creativity, and stress management, among others.
      • The technical skills you train for differ based on industry, company, department and job role/function. But think about the last year and a half – how many of us had to learn to use video conferencing and virtual chat programs we’d never used before? Tools like those or project management or customer relationship management platforms are relevant for workers across industries and roles. Your upskilling program can also help you identify and define skills you need to drive future growth.

      Speaking of future growth, you should be hiring new employees with upskilling in mind. American Express presented some interview questions to use to get a feel for if a potential hire is open to upskilling:

      • What do you do to stay current in this field and continue to improve your skills?
      • Share the last work scenario where your work priorities/job description substantially changed and what steps you took to adapt?
      • Can you share a time when a project you were working on did not go as planned? How did you manage the challenge?
    2. Why is a formal upskilling program better?

      A formal program requires you to set goals, objectives, and timelines and manage expectations. You can decide what the focus should be on and what is most important for your employees to learn. When you set specific, measurable goals, you can evaluate and improve your program and determine how and where to spend valuable resources. Otherwise, you’ll be operating in the dark. Test your program first on a small sample set of workers, and then scale up what works best.

      If you want to supplement a formal program with something more informal and employee-driven, you can consider job rotations, cross-training or mentoring and coaching programs. These options are often available at little to no cost and can be managed by employees. They have the opportunity to build skills and personal relationships that can pay off in the future.

    3. Which employees need upskilling?

      Not all employees will need upskilling at the same time. You might want or need to focus training on certain roles or department, workers who’ve been with the company for a certain amount of time, or those with the right personality/attitude that are interested in taking on more responsibilities. No matter what, you should be supporting employee’s personal and career growth and development because otherwise they’ll be asking – what’s in it for me?

      Ensure that your program is inclusive. Often those than need digital skills are the most likely to be overlooked. When that happens, you risk widening the digital divide.

    4. How to get employees engaged in upskilling

      How will you create buy-in for this program? It’s a fair concern because employees might feel like more work is being added to their plates. You should focus your messaging on what they will gain by adding new and valuable skills to their toolbox, like promotions or bonuses. Supplement messaging with tangible rewards and incentives top performers and workers that complete trainings can receive.

      Part of inciting commitment is making employees feel responsible and connected to the cause. It’s not just leadership that should be involved in the planning and implementation process of an upskilling program, but the employees and managers themselves. They are after all, the ones the program is intended for and their real experiences will help you shape the program going forward.

    5. How will I pay for upskilling?

      If you’re investing in new technology, then you’re investing in upskilling and training. They go hand-in-hand. Training is required for the successful implementation of new tech and processes. If you want new tech to improve productivity and customer experience, that only happens with good training. The World Economic Forum has estimated that in the US, the cost of upskilling is about $24,000 per employee. But they acknowledge the formula isn’t simple, and most likely depends on your unique situation. However, upskilling and training are still cheaper than hiring new employees. You’re not reinventing the wheel, just building off it to make something even better.

      One of the main fears around spending time and resources on upskilling is talent retention. If I train my employees on the latest skills and tech, won’t they leave? It’s a valid question. You are making them more employable and more competitive. But if you’re doing it right, your employees will want to stay. Upskilling improves employee satisfaction, productivity, and confidence and can thereby improve loyalty. Then the question is – why would they want to leave if they are happy and being treated well?