Reskilling and Upskilling: A Primer

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In all the buzz about the future of work, there are two terms we hear over and over: reskilling and upskilling. As in “Businesses will need to reskill their employees as automation changes the nature of their jobs.” Or “In today’s tight labor market, employees are looking for jobs that support their ongoing development, so savvy businesses are investing in upskilling their top talent.”

But what do those terms mean, exactly? Why are they important? And how can businesses effectively reskill or upskill (or both) their best employees in order to prepare for the future of work.

Definitions: Reskilling versus Upskilling

Reskilling is about learning (or teaching) entirely new skills. People who want to switch careers often have to reskill in order to prepare themselves for their new roles. But reskilling also takes place within an organization, when employees change departments or when their roles shift as a result of technological innovation. Moving from software development to project management would require reskilling, and so would making the change from a data analyst to the person who oversees and maintains the new data analytics AI.

Upskilling, on the other hand, refers to learning new skills in order to improve your performance and/or climb up the corporate ladder within your current profession. Perhaps you’d like to be promoted to a leadership role within your department. You might take a management class to help you develop the additional skills you need to be successful. Or perhaps you want to become a better salesperson or brand representative. You might work on developing your communication skills, not so you can switch jobs but so you can perform better in your current role.

Why Are Reskilling and Upskilling Important?

There are two big reasons businesses need to be focused on upskilling employees and at least thinking about reskilling.

The first is a simple numbers game. Today’s labor market is very tight, meaning there are very few qualified candidates per job opening. Add that to the sheer cost of hiring a new employee (six to nine months of that employee’s salary, according to SHRM research), and it’s a no-brainer that leaders should be focusing their energy on developing and retaining existing talent rather than seeking out new hires. This may mean upskilling to help them develop new tools to take on additional responsibility within their existing roles and/or departments, or reskilling to help them build the skills they need to fill a gap within the organization that they are interested in and apt for. Not only do hiring and promoting internally save businesses significant money, but the upskilling and reskilling that (should) go along with them indicate to employees that their companies value them and are invested in their growth.

The second reason upskilling and reskilling are important is the way technology is transforming businesses across most every industry. We’re not here to tell scary stories about machines taking over human jobs (for our full perspective on humans versus machines, read this recent blog post from our VP of accounts and operations, Melanie Meador). But we do want to acknowledge that automation is already changing the way we work—and will drive even more change in the coming years.

“The jobs of the future are likely to become more human in design, more service-oriented, and more reliant on soft skills. We also know that routine tasks, either mental or physical, are more likely to become automated,” says Patty Gaul in a recent post for the Association for Talent Development. These shifts will free up significant resources for activities that drive business growth, but in order to take full advantage, businesses will have to reskill and upskill employees, empowering them to be truly effective in their changing roles.

The new skills requirements may include hard skills that will enable employees to operate and maintain new technologies, but they will most certainly include soft skills like communication, teamwork, and emotional intelligence that will empower them to tackle the high-level, strategic tasks that will make up more of their roles as technology automates much of the manual or technical labor.

How Can Businesses Help Employees Develop the Skills They Need?

After all, budgets are limited, and training is expensive, right? Traditionally, yes. One-on-one training, university courses, etc. may be prohibitively expensive for all but the highest-level leaders, while generic group training won’t be specific enough to meet individual employees’ needs.

Fortunately, the very technology that is transforming the way we work is also transforming the way we learn, as AI and machine learning make it possible for businesses to deliver custom learning and development opportunities tailored to each employee’s individual goals and needs and designed to achieve lasting results.

To learn more about these innovative new L&D programs, read this recent blog post from CEO Noah Zandan. And when you’re ready to learn more about how reskilling and upskilling—especially in the realm of communication—can help your business retain top talent and prepare for the future of work, we’d love to talk. Fill out the form below, and one of our experts will contact you to walk you through our leadership communication development platform and process.