Upskilling and reskilling are essential to safeguarding the workforce—and organizations—for the future.
Digital transformation, the massive shift to hybrid work, and business model disruptions have significantly widened the skills gap in the US, making upskilling and reskilling among the hottest topics with which business leaders are grappling. Talent development and HR leaders, in particular, are looking at ways to invest in their people as they attempt to retain and engage workers during the Great Resignation.
On the surface, both upskilling and reskilling are about increasing your workforce's skill sets, but they differ in a few key ways. Upskilling is taking someone's current skills and training them for tomorrow's use cases. A great example of that is teaching a data entry clerk to become a data scientist. Both roles are heavily data-driven; however, the need for data entry is slowly waning due to digital, while the need for someone to understand data and apply it to business outcomes is on the rise.
By comparison, reskilling is when a company trains an employee for a different job entirely. An example would be a sales professional evolving into a marketing professional or an IT administrator reskilling to become a developer. Although those roles work closely together, the skill sets are vastly different.
Combining upskilling and reskilling can future-proof your workforce by ensuring that employees meet the requirements of the modern age. That helps workers stay relevant in their fields and provides employers with a stronger, more skilled workforce that produces better results, less turnover, and a competitive advantage.
The value of upskilling and reskilling now
Just a decade ago, many people would have dismissed the idea of a significant portion of the workforce being forced to work remotely without ever stepping foot inside an office. Then COVID-19 created a massive workforce transformation. As technology has increased and more digital tools have become available, remote work has been a nearly frictionless experience for some employees and managers. For others, upskilling and reskilling became an instant reality.
Remote and hybrid work is just one example of a recent and significant technologically backed shift driving the need to upskill workers at every level. However, due to digital transformation, many more skills gaps exist in the workforce today.
According to a 2020 McKinsey Global Survey that examined the future of work, "companies lack the talent they will need in the future: 44 percent of respondents say their organizations will face skill gaps within the next five years, and another 43 percent report existing skill gaps."
Many other studies support the need for upskilling and reskilling. For example, the World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs Report 2020 estimates that by 2025, machines may displace 85 million jobs, but 97 million new roles may emerge due to a new dynamic between people and technology. The artificial intelligence and automation movement is now known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and as with any revolution, the change will be dramatic and challenging, especially for workers.
In the Salesforce blog post titled "What Is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?," Devon McGinnis writes that it is "a way of describing the blurring of boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological worlds. It's a fusion of advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, genetic engineering, quantum computing, and other technologies."
The disruption that the Fourth Industrial Revolution has caused will mean that employees need skills that cannot be automated. In other words, workers need to add more value to their roles—or emerging technologies may threaten their positions.
Upskilling and reskilling initiatives are a business imperative for organizations to remain agile and for employees to stay relevant in the workforce.
What are companies doing about it?
Many employers have already made significant investments in upskilling and reskilling their workforces. Accenture, a global professional services company, is one such employer, investing approximately $900,000 annually to create millions of training hours dedicated to training and developing its people.
Funding alone won't address the issue, however. Companies must determine who is responsible for ensuring workers' future—is it solely the employer, or are employees equally accountable too?
On one hand, employers should want their staff to be as skilled as possible so that they perform better, are engaged, and are willing to stick around and adapt quickly to emerging needs. On the other hand, employees should be responsible for maintaining and learning skills to keep themselves relevant in the job market because, at the end of the day, their livelihoods are at stake.
The answer is that it's both. No particular party is entirely responsible for upskilling and reskilling.
Employees should do their best to learn technical skills and soft skills, such as leadership, communication, and agility. Such transferable skills go a long way no matter the job. Workers also should be open to learning new things; be willing to put in the time to develop new skills; and set achievable, personal goals to ensure they continue growing.
The good news is that workers seem on board with that idea. PwC's 2021 Hopes and Fears Survey of more than 32,500 people worldwide found that 77 percent "are ready to learn new skills or completely retrain."
As for companies, they need to do their part by providing resources for staff to use, especially resources that directly explain to workers how they should perform in a new or elevated role. That could entail holding learning events, providing subject matter expertise, and creating employee development plans. Employers also should focus on leadership and management to foster a culture of learning that enables workers to succeed.
Programs and methods
Creating and implementing a reskilling or upskilling program at your organization can take on many different forms and requires much planning. I spoke with Nicole Coletta, Accenture's director of people architecture, to better understand how the company views skills training and how other organizations can start upskilling their workforce.
Coletta, who began this journey more than five years ago, says that the first step Accenture took to begin upskilling was to understand where workers' current skill sets lie. To do so, the company began creating holistic skill profiles that precisely identify the breadth and depth of an individual's skills. The profiles define the depth of a skill as how specialized a person is in one skill, and the breadth of skills is the collection of skills that represent the business needs.
Coletta also notes the importance of the company having a skills taxonomy that people leaders share and use across HR processes in support of the business (for example, learning, recruiting, and performance).
After Accenture created the holistic skills profiles, the company's platforms, systems, and algorithms could present personalized training opportunities based on an individual's needs and what future needs the market has indicated will be in demand soon. That approach set the stage for an employee's career path.
Many organizations use career paths as a road map to success. Career pathing helps employees understand what skills and requirements they will need to achieve success.
"A career path is personal to each individual employee and helps them to break down the steps needed to achieve their long-term career goals and progress their career either laterally or through promotion," notes the TalentGuard blog post "Reskilling and Upskilling: A Strategic Response to Changing Skill Demands." Further, it explains that career pathing "requires an understanding of the knowledge, skills and personal traits required and helps to identify the specialized skills and additional training needed to fulfill those aspirations."
Establishing an infrastructure that helps employees meet future job demands and identify hidden skills helps organizations create a culture of talent mobility, which increases engagement, fulfillment, and retention.
Coletta says that one of the challenges is coaching employees to become more accustomed to continually monitoring their skill profiles and making sure they're updated so that staff can be best positioned for opportunities as they arise. The company provides the tools employees need to grow, but they must take time to monitor their progress and be willing to learn.
Another huge factor to consider is speed. Agility is often touted in many workplace processes, and it applies to upskilling and reskilling too. Agile learning occurs when employees and employers embrace a culture of learning that allows for quick pivots and opportunities to take on knowledge whenever needed.
Coletta recognizes that speed is a significant factor at Accenture because it is critical to quickly respond to clients' talent needs. The company addresses speed through the algorithms it has pioneered that enable workers to recognize their skills gaps and promptly incorporate and adapt training to respond to market needs.
However, one of the significant hurdles is helping people become more comfortable trusting the data and acting upon the suggestions the data reveals. Similarly, it's also vital for business leaders to buy into the process.
Employees at every level should feel empowered to seek and gain new knowledge. Empowering staff to be lifelong learners aids in their development of unique expertise and intelligence that can be shared across the enterprise.
Skill training starts with creating an environment of learning
While there will always be challenges to upskilling and reskilling, Coletta remains positive, looking forward to a future where skills training becomes even more normalized and adopted.
"The market, in general, has a unique opportunity to really invest in the people currently in the workforce," she says. "We can really make this great, and we really invest in the people who are willing and want to work to reinvent themselves. In a way, we all need to come together and do it."
Although that type of investment may be out of reach for many companies, the message is that organizations must create an environment of learning. How that environment will look will largely depend on the company's budget, timeframe, and other factors. Devising action plans and enabling and empowering workers will help future-proof your organization while also increasing engagement and retention rates.
Ensuring employees continuously develop their skills now and well into the future is vital for companies to remain competitive. Numerous studies and reports show that skills gaps are increasing, and employers that ignore that issue will be left behind.
Upskilling and reskilling programs are crucial to solving talent development issues before they arise. Programs can differ from company to company, but employers should take some aspects of upskilling and reskilling as boilerplate initiatives, such as:
- Creating a culture of learning from top to bottom
- Ensuring employees understand their current skills, the gaps they may have, and the opportunities available to them
- Setting organization development goals to empower all employees to increase their knowledge and skill sets
- Adopting an agile mindset instead of a traditional one when it comes to learning
- Developing career paths so that employees fully understand their career trajectory
Done correctly, upskilling and reskilling provide benefits to both employees and employers. If ignored or done incorrectly, however, organizations will find themselves needing to reduce their workforce, leaving outplacement firms in charge of helping workers build skills and transitioning them into new jobs.
In the end, employees who upskill and reskill can rest assured knowing that they are staying relevant in the job market and excelling in their careers, and employers will be enjoying less turnover, more engagement, and more productivity from their workforce.