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ATD Blog

3 Reasons to Rethink Our Use of the Terms Reskilling and Upskilling

Monday, May 2, 2022

There is hardly an article, a webinar, or even a conversation in our profession today that does not inevitably include talk of reskilling and upskilling. Both terms started out as descriptors of specific interventions but morphed into catch-alls that are losing their usefulness. There are at least three reasons why the TD profession should relegate these terms strictly to their original purpose and adopt new language:

1. Upskilling and reskilling are not adequate to describe the critical work of TD—especially in the new world of work.

Upskilling and reskilling describe very specific interventions. Upskilling is development that provides employees with additional capabilities needed to continue in the current job. The implication is that employees requiring upskilling are now or are soon to be underperforming.

Reskilling is development that provides employees with additional capabilities needed to transition to a new job, often very different from the current one. The implication is that employees requiring reskilling are on the verge of obsolescence in the context of the needs of the organization.

Outskilling is a special case of reskilling. It is development that provides employees with additional capabilities needed to transition to a new job outside of the current organization. The implication is that employees requiring outskilling cannot or should not be developed for roles inside the organization.

In all cases, the terms describe an intervention with a beginning and an end. Employees are upskilled, reskilled, or outskilled to keep up with the changing requirements of the job set forth by the organization.

There are better terms to describe the work of talent development today and in the future. Our jobs are not limited to playing catch-up when employees fall behind rapidly changing requirements. We are engaged in efforts that enable successful employees to be even better in their current roles, preparing them for advancement, career growth, and career change. We are charged with anticipating emerging needs and enabling resilience and innovation.

The bulk of our work is aimed at the continuous development of the capabilities of the organization and everyone in it. We lead the investment in the capability of the workforce for the mutual benefit of the organization and the individual. We create experiences that enable the development of new and better capabilities and the ability to apply and improve them. We mint the currency of the future and should describe our contributions in those terms.


2. For many, the terms hold negative connotations that we should not perpetuate.

What do the terms upskilling and reskilling mean to you? Do they carry the same meaning to the employees and constituents you support? The terms reskilling and upskilling often hold negative implications for employees—as if we are calling them obsolete or broken. Upskilling or reskilling fixes them. It is easy for us in the TD function to unconsciously accept that premise by putting the most positive spin on it: It’s not the employee’s fault. We even make the economic argument that it is cheaper to fix current employees than to recruit new ones. With any of these justifications, we put ourselves in the business of fixing broken employees.

These terms contribute to the misimpression that this development issue is one of moving people from obsolete jobs to totally new and largely technical jobs. The McKinsey Global institute reported on research involving 8,000 people in 15 countries that identified 56 skills critical to the future of work, only a fraction of which were technical. And while some skills—storytelling and translating knowledge into different contexts—may be relatively new, none are outside of the development solutions that talent development professionals have been providing for years. Other skills identified—problem solving, coaching, and active listening—have been mainstays of corporate curricula for decades. This research only confirms the insight and experience of talent development professionals.

There are absolutely situations when employees face obsolescence or aren’t performing at acceptable levels. Be honest and transparent in those circumstances; reskill or upskill those employees. But take care to use the proper terms in their true application.

3. Using these terms fails to properly focus on the work ahead.

Our response to the current challenges of the new workforce is the logical continuation of the work of the talent development function. The speed, agility, and flexibility that TD showed in our response to the pandemic have changed the expectations of our profession. We have always reacted quickly to disruption; now, we are expected to anticipate and prepare for multiple future needs.

And yes, we have encountered a sudden surge in obsolescence. Armed with greater choice than ever in our lifetimes, employees demand that we support them in their rapidly changing careers. From these events, we have learned that we must accelerate our investment in the growth of our companies by escalating our commitment to our employees.


With that shared understanding, we must work to replace the misnomers of upskilling and reskilling with terms that more accurately describe what we, in partnership with our workforce, are doing and why we are doing it. As TD professionals, we are creating a culture of continuous learning. And our employees are investing in themselves and their careers.

Words matter. They affect our mental models, choices, and actions. Carefully consider whether you are reskilling and upskilling versus supporting continuous development.

A Case for Future-Skilling

If a single term best describes the breadth of our work, it might be future-skilling, which has been in the lexicon for several years. The Conference Board published its article “ Future-Skilling Your Workforce” in 2015. Companies like Accenture, Microsoft, and IBM have reported on their own future-skilling efforts. And Singapore, Australia, Canada, and India have used the term to describe their national goals.

Future-skilling suggests a broader, forward-thinking mindset. It involves preparing people for success in areas we haven’t identified yet. It encompasses resilience, agility, and innovation. It espouses thriving in an uncertain future. It’s about nourishing continuous and sustainable skills that are intertwined with the organization’s purpose, culture, and goals. Future-skilling is not limited to training and development. A future-skilling strategy touches every part of the employee life cycle and embraces all talent.

This mindset requires us to act differently, sharpening our priorities and focusing our actions on the efforts that drive individual and organization success, always with our eyes on the horizon.

The way we responded to the many challenges of the pandemic should give us confidence that we can master the challenge that is ahead of us. Successful future-skilling is not a program. It is a philosophy of and a commitment to continuous development of a people ecosystem in which holistic talent development is integrated into the fabric of the organization. Future-skilling best describes the leading-edge work of our profession. Welcome the future today.

About the Author

CTDO Next is ATD’s premier membership for talent development executives who want to shape the future of the profession. This network of global learning leaders is passionate about transformations that affect the field. Through the work of CTDO Next, members explore a variety of forward-focused topics with the goal to take a position and lead the profession. Learn more at

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