Upskilling & Reskilling Employees
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When discussed in the context of an organisation's learning and development strategy, upskilling and reskilling refer to the educational opportunities offered by a business to its employees.
While the two words are often used interchangeably, there is a significant difference in their definitions.
- To upskill is to provide training that enhances an employee’s existing skill set, allowing them to grow in their current role and bring added value to an organisation.
- To reskill is essentially to retrain an employee for a new position. This process is commonly used when an employee’s post has become redundant and the employer looks to retain the worker by training them in a new discipline.
Although mainly associated with advancements in technology, upskilling and reskilling are also vital for the continued development of valuable soft skills.
In today’s ever-evolving and highly competitive business environment, these are critical components of an effective business strategy.
For employers, upskilling and reskilling should deliver a valuable return on investment.
By promoting continued learning and development as part of its company culture, a business can boost employee job satisfaction, remain competitive and increase its bottom line by bringing out the full potential of an existing workforce.
There are cost-related employee benefits too. Paying for professional qualifications outside of the workplace can be prohibitively expensive, and it is often best to seize paid training opportunities from within employment.
Reskilling within an organisation can lead to a more exciting, diverse career path, create progression opportunities and uncover hidden skills.
There are also several factors associated with emerging workplace trends that drive home the importance of upskilling at work:
Continued learning plays a significant role in job satisfaction, particularly among the younger generations.
Even though millennials are known for job-hopping, the majority still value career development highly and will seek out employers who can provide this for them.
People in their mid to late careers will be looking for long-term roles, and therefore roles within which they will have the opportunity to shift or grow as professionals without destabilising their lives with a big change.
Workers now look to employers to provide training and development and are likely to move on if this is not available. Providing plenty of opportunities for upskilling at work means employers are far more likely to hold on to and attract further top talent.
Retraining employees who already understand and are committed to a company’s structure, culture and mission is another great reason for a company to retain and reskill its workforce.
By reskilling existing employees, organisations invest in the long-term retention of staff and empower themselves to prepare for fast-changing skills demands.
If employees are willing to learn and adapt quickly, an employer creates a workforce that can not only address an immediate reskilling need, but also meet future, emerging skills gaps as they arise.
The need for technical proficiency is no longer confined to the IT department. Digital technologies have entered every area of business operation and, to be used effectively, they require employees to have relevant knowledge and capabilities.
The new generations entering the workforce (namely millennials and Generation Z) typically bring these digital talents to the table. It’s therefore crucial to upskill existing older employees – with potentially more industry expertise – to avoid any adverse effects resulting from a sense of redundancy.
As technology becomes more prevalent in the workplace, focusing on employee soft skills has never been more important. With businesses increasingly reliant on automation and algorithms, key abilities such as communication, problem solving, networking and critical thinking can suffer.
The challenge all organisations are currently facing is to ensure that soft skills are not eroded by increased use of screens, and to identify and cultivate a workforce who still value communication and teamwork, even when working primarily with technology.
Technology can only take a business so far. Employers that neglect upskilling interpersonal skills and analytical capabilities will often find themselves outdone by their competition.
An increasingly competitive marketplace means more businesses are tightening their budgets. Filling a skills gap through new hires or temporary contract workers may seem like a sensible option but it is costly and, when combined with the time delays associated with recruitment, is more often than not a false economy.
As colleges and schools are not producing work-ready candidates, oftentimes new recruits will require some level of on-the-job training to undertake a new role.
Whilst upskilling and reskilling also require investments of both time and money, there is no onboarding involved and they should address an emergent skills-need faster than hiring new talent. The skills gained remain a permanent fixture of the company, often leading to cost savings in the long run.
While younger generations are comfortable in a technology-led workplace, they may lack important soft skills and industry expertise. Experienced employees with valuable knowledge may find their skills increasingly redundant. This can lead to a lack of engagement from both sides.
By designing an upskilling strategy that encourages continuous learning through collaboration, employers can benefit from the combined talents of their workforce and ensure all employees feel relevant in, and engaged with, the company culture.
The benefits of upskilling and reskilling are many, but they will only be achieved through a carefully considered strategy designed around business objectives and skills deficiencies.
To identify these, a company must carry out a process referred to as a skills gap analysis.
A skills gap analysis is the process whereby a business looks to identify the gap between the skills it needs for its continued growth and success, and the skills offered by its current workforce.
Typically, the process is conducted on one of two levels:
- An organisational or departmental level, where combined skills are evaluated to assess a team’s capability to complete a specific project or meet predicted future business needs.
- An individual level, where the skills of a particular employee are evaluated against the current and future requirements of their job role.
Existing skills can be determined through employee interviews, performance reviews or assessments.
Future skills can be identified through consideration of business goals and objectives, and what is required to achieve them.
A skills gap analysis can be conducted internally or by an external consultant – the latter bringing the benefit of specialist expertise and objectivity.
A comprehensive skills gap analysis brings many business benefits, among them:
- Succession planning – A business can create a blueprint of internal progression, ensuring relevant skills are held by potential successors.
- Future-proofing for the marketplace – A business can assess the direction of its industry and the relevant skill set required to remain competitive.
- Individual career paths – A business can ensure workers continue to develop the skills needed for their individual goals, increasing employee retention rates through job satisfaction.
Not least, a skills gap analysis is crucial in informing a successful upskilling strategy, helping to highlight skill deficiencies, required training and the best methods of delivery.
Self-starters are the first employees to be retrained, and it will pay for employees to show an employer on a day-to-day basis that they are willing to learn and have a can-do attitude.
Good training happens on the job, as the immediate application of a new skill is the biggest factor in its retention.
A strong learning and development strategy will integrate opportunities for upskilling whilst working.
However, it is also possible for employees to take initiative and seek to continually improve their processes and acquire new tools, strategies and skills whilst working in their existing roles.
Learning takes time, so it will also be important for employees to demonstrate to an employer that they can manage their schedule well if they wish to reskill and shift to a new role in their current workplace.
Employees who can balance learning with existing responsibilities will demonstrate that they can take on more work, or potentially train for a new role whilst still fulfilling their existing commitments.
Most emerging job functions, in the wake of automation, will require some proficiency with technology.
Those who feel comfortable with digital tools will also be the most useful to organisations as work continues to change.
Whilst some work will become automated completely, more roles will evolve by integrating digital systems that have to be manned.
Employees can get ahead by learning new software or tools, taking time out to ensure they pick up these things quickly, and asking for help or further training where it is needed.
As automation, artificial intelligence and digitization rapidly outrun the development of training programs, it is difficult for an organisation to know exactly how they will need to reskill their workforce.
As an employee, it can be tough to stay motivated and follow a career plan when the nature of work is changing so rapidly.
Equally, it can be difficult to identify areas of professional development that are worthwhile investing in.
Large organisations particularly will have learning and development strategies. Employees can speak to supervisors, managers and human resources teams to find out what plans there are in the pipeline for reskilling in the organisation and look for opportunities for retraining in this way.
Technical skills have a half-life, and making the investment to train an employee for a new role now does not guarantee that that role will not then be automated or require new skills very soon.
A good example is word processing – five years ago, proficiency in a word processing software package would be essential in all office roles.
Now, most software packages have been displaced by cloud and browser-based applications that address new demands, have different functionality and require new learning or training for employees to make the best use of them.
This is even the case for highly specialised design, programming and 3D modeling software, and the rate of innovation in software tools shows no sign of slowing down.
So, in all workplaces, an ability to quickly adapt to changes and innovations in digital tools is essential.
Employees can get ahead of the game by using their spare time to research new software that is relevant to their current role, and get to grips with it. They can also speak to other teams in the workplace about new projects or developments they have had to learn or are about to be reskilled in.
In 2018, two in five companies in the US admitted they lacked a good understanding of how automation might affect their future skills needs.
So much traditional training has little evident impact, by making no clear pathway to new work, that companies might hold off on creating reskilling opportunities until jobs have been displaced by digitisation for long enough for that impact to be evaluated.
Reskilling is not a process of asking employees to start at the bottom of the ladder in a new field.
Employers will be looking to make the best use of their employees' full skill sets to address quickly changing demands, and so will be looking at the full picture of their skills pool, including all their technical, specialist and soft skills.
An employer should be looking to identify hidden abilities when they evaluate who to reskill – so employees should take time to evaluate what they can do that they do not currently make use of in their current role, and find ways to evidence this or integrate it within the work.
How to Upskill Your Employees
The following upskilling examples offer some methods for continued learning and development in the workplace. The most effective upskilling strategies will incorporate several techniques that make the most of existing internal skills and external resources.
Each business must align their methods with their business objectives and requirements. Also, remember to consider different learning styles and balance these against individual employee needs.
The most cost-effective method of upskilling at work is to simply increase the level of responsibility or diversify the workload of any given employee.
This is best achieved by asking senior staff to act as mentors, or by bringing separate departments together to work collaboratively.
Upskilling through on-the-job training allows employees to expand their skill set in line with the needs of the business. It promotes a learning environment that makes the best use of internal skills already at your disposal.
Moving employees between teams to learn from each other is another great way of upskilling the workforce. It enables them to upskill on the job under the supportive umbrella of their colleagues.
Encourage buddying up. Colleagues who have opposite strengths can be placed together on a project, and in doing so, they acquire each other’s skills. In an organisation intent on digitising the customer roadmap, you will often see a customer service manager ‘buddied up' with an IT manager.
Dependent on your area of business, there is likely a professional body that offers educational courses and industry-recognised qualifications that can enhance the existing skills of your employees.
You could also consider providing additional training in areas such as digital marketing or business management.
There is value to be gained in the credibility of a recognised qualification. Employees that have completed these courses can also bring their knowledge back into the workplace and share their skills with their colleagues.
If you’re looking to upskill employees with minimum disruption to the workplace, online learning tools offer a flexible and cost-effective upskilling strategy.
There are accredited online learning providers for almost every business sector and discipline, offering structured programmes leading to recognised qualifications.
Employees can study at their own pace from their desk, eliminating travel costs and time spent away from the office.
You could also consider compiling your own e-learning programme of curated webinars, podcasts and TED talks. This is a far cheaper option as many of these resources can be accessed free of charge.
Allowing employees time away from the office to attend relevant seminars and events is another popular upskilling strategy.
Most industry events will have educational sessions led by sector experts and these can prove highly valuable to employees.
As well as gaining exposure to business trends and developments and learning from sector leaders, they will also have the chance to network, exchanging ideas and information with their industry peers.
Group sessions held on-site and led by external training providers are a great way of upskilling workforce soft skills.
Additionally, there are a host of specialist trainers that can upskill your workforce in specific soft skills such as public speaking, creativity and presentation techniques.
Employers are also looking increasingly toward training providers of mindfulness and stress management – vital skills that should not be overlooked in a demanding workplace.
Another cost-effective method of upskilling at work is to have staff teach each other through internal training days. Consider asking department heads to compile educational presentations and set tasks for other teams.
This can prove an effective method for small companies that often need a multiskilled workforce capable of crossing department disciplines.
Continued learning and development in the workplace has always been vital for businesses to grow and succeed. A stagnant workforce that does not move with the times will inevitably find itself lacking in the skills necessary to advance in the marketplace.
In addition, technological advancements and the changing expectations of employees mean that a business that fails to implement an effective upskilling strategy will struggle to attract and retain top talent, dramatically falling behind its competition.
The most successful businesses continually evaluate future needs against current capabilities, developing training opportunities that ensure the continued development of employees as well as company growth.
In a top-down culture, line managers typically decide when their employees need upskill training. However, for more agile environments, this alone is often not enough.
Some of the most progressive employers are enabling employees to be much more involved in their personal development.
They invite their people to make suggestions and use people analytics, behavioral and performance software to understand where there may be hidden skills.
In this sense, changes in skilling are owned by everyone. They become an intrinsic part of the company culture with upskilling and reskilling opportunities for all.