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ATD Blog

Updating Our Thinking Around Upskilling

Monday, June 20, 2022

Does your organization aspire to …

  • Generate greater employee confidence, effectiveness, motivation, and productivity today?
  • Future-proof the organization with a skillful workforce while reducing anxiety in the face of an uncertain future?
  • Reduce unwanted turnover, improve retention, and cultivate a positive employment brand or reputation as an employer of choice?
  • Build and embed a culture of continuous learning and growth?

Then consider exploring upskilling. Gallup and Amazon research report found that 65 percent of American workers rate employer-provided upskilling as important when evaluating new opportunities. And Cengage found that 83 percent of those leaving cite, “no longer feeling like I was growing in my role” as a top reason for their departure.

In countless conversations with L&D professionals during the recent ATD 2022 International Conference & EXPO, I heard stories of organizations that are doubling down on upskilling as a strategy to deliver these powerful business and individual outcomes.

What’s in a Word?

Before digging into evolving practices, it’s best to clarify terms—or perhaps blur them. Historically, the words upskilling and reskilling have been used to express variations on a development theme. Most definitions distinguish the two based on how new skills will be used:

  • Reskilling refers to learning new skills to enable employees to do different jobs.
  • Upskilling focuses on elevating existing skills or learning new ones related to the current position.

While such a distinction made sense during our predictable past, it’s likely less useful today. The Institute for the Future of Work predicts that 85 percent of the jobs we’ll be doing in 2030 haven’t yet been invented. And in today’s dynamic business environment, where enterprise transformations occur at lightning speed, the lines between today’s and tomorrow’s roles are quickly blurring.

So, for the purposes of this blog post, I’ll use the term upskilling loosely to include the learning and development that elevates people’s capacity to perform and thrive today as well as tomorrow.


Upskilling Revamped

While my conversations at the ATD International Conference & EXPO surfaced universal agreement around the need to upskill today’s workforce, the differences arose around how best to accomplish it given the complex environment within which learning must be deployed. What’s clear, though, is that some of the sensibilities and practices of the past are morphing and giving way to approaches that better align with today’s needs. Organizations that are cracking the upskilling code are evolving:


TO …

Hard skills
Human skills

From Programmed to Personal
In the 1980s, I managed state-funded workforce enhancement programs. We’d bring together all employees in at-risk job families and offer three days of skills training. What was cutting-edge at the time seems ridiculous today. One size never has and still doesn’t fit all. Upskilling that moves the needle focuses on target audiences of one. It’s bespoke to the individual, addressing unique and frequently one-off needs and interests.

From Event-Based to Embedded
Before the pandemic, research found that employees’ top challenge associated with development was finding the time to do it. This sentiment is likely amplified today. That’s why in many organizations, formal workshops, seminars, and webinars are being offered less frequently and more strategically. This offers a tremendous opportunity for managers and employees to partner to find organic learning opportunities within the work—development experiences that efficiently deliver business results and growth concurrently. It’s the ultimate win-win when, as I say in Promotions Are SO Yesterday, “the work becomes the learning, and the learning becomes the work”.


From Push to Pull
Consistent with shifts to more personal and embedded upskilling methods, many organizations are finding that offering development opportunities on a self-service basis enables greater ownership, enthusiasm, and results. Allowing employees to access what they need when, where, and how they want it offers the flexibility and choice that’s more important today than ever before. Organizations that opened their learning vaults during the pandemic, making on-demand courseware that had previously been doled out to the few available to the many, has shifted the locus of control for learning—and ownership—to employees.

From Calendared to Continuous
In many organizations, annual individual development conversations and one-and-done development planning have gone the way of the dinosaurs. The dynamic nature of today’s workplace is such that the ink on a plan isn’t even dry before something’s changed. If managers aren’t engaged in regular development dialogue with their employees, it’s impossible to offer relevant upskilling. A continuous conversation is non-negotiable—not just for employee growth and success, but for the growth and success of the business as well.

From Hard Skills to Human Skills
With so much attention on automation and AI, effective upskilling efforts are focusing on how to enable employees to excel at what we all are uniquely suited to bring to our work: human skills. Machines and machine learning can’t replace emotional intelligence and empathy, creativity, collaboration and teamwork, critical thinking, and leadership. These are key upskilling content areas.

From Promotion-Focused to Possibility-Focused
So frequently, the objective of upskilling and development, in general, is extrinsic—a promotion, move, or new role. But given today’s reality and tomorrow’s uncertainty, that’s not always possible or practical. Shifting the focus toward what’s possible instead establishes realistic expectations, builds trust, and opens the employee’s eyes to greater opportunity.

Updating our thinking around upskilling is not without implications. We must prepare managers to be active L&D partners, taking the lead in assessing needs and collaboratively formulating individual plans with employees. We must transparently share with employees information related to the business so they understand and can play an active role in envisioning and preparing for the future. And when we do, we’ll be able to meet this moment in a way that serves employees and the organization. We’ll also evolve our L&D discipline and enable ourselves to address future challenges—which we all know are just around the corner.

About the Author

Julie Winkle Giulioni is a champion for workplace growth and development and helps leaders optimize talent and potential within their organizations with consulting, keynote speeches, and training.

Julie is the author of Promotions Are So Yesterday: Redefine Career Development. Help Employees Thrive. and co-author of the international bestseller Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want. She is a regular columnist for Training Industry magazine and SmartBrief and contributes articles on leadership, career development, and workplace trends to publications including The Economist.

Named by Inc. magazine as a Top 100 Leadership Speaker, Julie’s in-person and virtual keynotes and presentations offer fresh, inspiring, yet actionable strategies for leaders who are interested in their own growth as well as supporting the growth of others.

Her firm, DesignArounds, creates and offers training to organizations worldwide and has earned praise and awards from Human Resource Executive magazine’s Top Ten Training Products, New York Film Festival, Brandon Hall, and Global HR Excellence Council.

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