If you deal with employees and strategic organizational planning at any scale, you might have noticed that the terms “upskilling” and “reskilling” are being used more and more frequently – and sometimes, interchangeably. There’s a reason these seemingly self-explanatory buzzwords are heard more and more in recent years, but what does it really mean to “upskill” or “reskill” an employee, and when is it truly necessary?
First, let’s look at definitions.
According to the Cambridge dictionary, upskilling is “the process of learning new skills or of teaching workers new skills,” while reskilling is “the process of learning new skills so you can do a different job, or of training people to do a different job.”
While both upskilling and reskilling imply learning new skills, context is everything. Upskilling is primarily focused on helping employees become more skilled and relevant at their current position, while reskilling is focused on making employees available for other jobs within the organization.
Both of these seem like important HR functions, though – so why is it that we’re hearing more about them lately?
Since the industrial revolution in the 19th century, technologies have been changing, growing and adapting at an ever-increasing rate. We currently live in a period called “the Fourth Industrial Revolution” by some, in which advances in AI and automation are revolutionizing and disrupting well-established roles and professions at an unprecedented pace. How unprecedented?
The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Future of Jobs Report predicted that by 2022, 75 million jobs across 20 major economies will be displaced by emerging technologies. This doesn’t mean people are being pushed out of the job market, though. The same report predicts that 133 million new roles are expected to be created by these very same technological advances. That’s good news for people in the workforce, but these new jobs and requirements still require relevant training.
But new types of jobs aren’t the only factor to take into consideration. In his book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink identifies two more forces in addition to automation as key drivers in today’s economy that make up- and reskilling so mission critical: Abundance, and Asia.
In order to stand out from the rest of the competition, both domestically and internationally, companies need to differentiate themselves and make their value proposition shine brighter than others. To do so, having an agile, diverse and creative workforce that is continuously learning, adapting, acquiring and perfecting new skills is absolutely essential.
On top of all this, we are now undergoing the greatest financial crisis of our times – a fact which requires companies to think fast, and react even faster in order to survive. This makes upskilling and reskilling indispensable practices in any organization.
Decision-makers may wonder why they should bother with reskilling their workforce, rather than focus on hiring a new generation of employees that have already invested in acquiring the new skills needed by the organization. While new recruits have this one advantage going for them, existing employees have many more; enough to make internal talent development a crucial, mission critical objective.
First, employees that have been working for an organization for several years have a deep understanding of company needs, clients, customers and partners. But even if they don’t, the rapid change of technological advancement means that it takes longer to recruit and train new employees than it does to develop new, paradigm-shifting technologies. An agile, flexible workforce is crucial for organizations that want to stay ahead of the curve, and a culture of upskilling and reskilling is therefore a valuable asset that allows quick adoption of new technological solutions and innovative business practices.
It’s clear that forward-thinking organizations must take upskilling and reskilling seriously if they want to keep up with the times, and this makes sense at a policy level, but when it gets to the nitty-gritty reality of choosing the right employees for the right training programs, things can become a bit less intuitive. Who should get reskilled? What should they be trained in? When?
The answers to these questions start to emerge and make sense when they’re addressed through the lens of career pathing.
Employees’ personal aspirations are a huge driving force in their productivity, engagement and loyalty to their organizations. Companies that are smart enough to harness these aspirations and provide their employees with personalized career paths find that the boost to their overall performance is significant. But these personalized career paths can also serve as a compass to reskilling efforts. Looking at skill gaps and matching them up to gaps that need to be bridged in order to serve employees’ career aspirations helps to both align organizational and personal goals, and to identify strong candidates for specific upskilling and reskilling programs.
The question of “when” can be answered when your business needs and financial reality are clear to you. In order to do that, companies must gain clear visibility and understanding into their areas of high and low demand, as well as their workforce capabilities.
In a recent MIT research paper on the emerging technology of opportunity marketplaces, one conclusion they’ve reached is that “…the corrective, our research shows, goes beyond a greater emphasis on workforce restructuring, retraining, reskilling, and ‘rightsizing’ efforts. For many workers, more skills — and even better experiences — without more opportunity is insufficient. If workers don’t value the opportunities they’re offered — if those opportunities don’t speak to their passion, potential, and purpose, for example — they can and will likely leave.”
Although it’s a crucial first step, it’s not enough to identify gaps in career pathing and skill availability.
In order to truly reap the benefits of reskilling programs, organizations must also provide their employees with personalized recommendations, at scale, and actionable steps to easily consume and learn the skills they need. Reskilling and upskilling can be seen as an ongoing practice, and if employees aren’t stimulated and encouraged to constantly seek out opportunities to learn and grow, the company as a whole won’t do so, either.
But this doesn’t have to be a chore. With the right tools, reskilling and upskilling can be an enjoyable and rewarding undertaking – especially if the experience is mediated through a consumer-grade UI, tied in with personalized, tailor-made content, and connected to actionable tasks and projects within the organization.