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Upskilling is a workplace trend that facilitates continuous learning by providing training programs and development opportunities that expand an employee's abilities and minimize skill gaps. Upskilling focuses on improving current employees' skill sets, usually through training, so they can advance in their jobs and find different roles and opportunities within the company.

As technology creates new opportunities and job positions within the workplace, it becomes increasingly important for companies to fill these new roles with candidates who possess the relevant, specialized skill sets. Upskilling allows organizations to close the digital talent gap and fill these open positions while maintaining their current workforce and creating employee strengthening and learning opportunities.

Several upskilling techniques include:

  • virtual or online courses;
  • mentoring and shadowing;
  • "lunch-and-learn" sessions; and
  • microlearning.

Why is upskilling important?

Technology continues to rapidly change the way most organizations operate. In response, companies and their employees must consistently add to their technical knowledge and skill sets. As job requirements change and new skills are required, companies are forced to either find new talent or fill the gap through upskilling.

Through upskilling, companies can save money by increasing the abilities of their current employees, instead of spending time and budget on hiring new workers. In addition, the current workforce is expecting more from their job than guaranteed pay and a comfortable workplace environment. Employees now anticipate perks such as paid holidays, affordable healthcare and professional training. By providing employees with upskill training opportunities, organizations can make workers feel that they are valued and have a dedicated future within the company.

Overall, upskilling is important because:

  • job roles and their requirements are changing faster than ever;
  • employees expect more opportunities for growth within their companies;
  • it helps an organization stay more competitive by closing skill gaps;
  • it decreases the need to recruit outside the company to fill skill gaps;
  • it increases employee satisfaction, boosting motivation, performance and morale; and
  • it increases employee retention.

Additionally, companies that choose to upskill rather than fill skill gaps with outside talent save money and time by reducing the need for hiring, onboarding and training processes.

How to develop an upskilling strategy

When developing an upskilling strategy, companies must first identify the skill gaps currently within their organization. This step will help businesses ensure their upskilling efforts are in alignment with their workforce needs.

Next, companies must consider both the short- and long-term impacts of the upskilling efforts. For example, it can be easy to focus on the newest tool on the market, however, this development may not help the business long-term. Therefore, an organization should focus on how it can improve its core skills to increase long-term value. However, it is still necessary to stay up to date with industry trends and to leverage new technology so the company can maintain a competitive edge.

Once the skill gaps have been identified, a business can begin to build and select the training programs that make the most sense for the organization. The key is to set up training and development in a way that makes sense for the company. In this step, an organization determines factors such as:

  • whether a volume training session is needed or if a one-on-one lesson would be more beneficial;
  • whether the training can be done internally or if an external educational institution needs to be hired; and
  • which types of learning make the most sense -- considering mentoring, online courses, training sessions or post-secondary courses.

In addition to understanding which upskilling methods are best for all employees, organizations must also consider each worker's goals and tailor an upskilling plan to every worker. Since each individual possesses different skill sets and goals, a different upskilling strategy will be needed for each employee, depending on their current knowledge, their role within the organization, how that role is evolving and the new technology requirements necessary to continue efficiently performing the job. It is important to communicate with managers throughout this stage of the upskilling strategy to ensure they are having frequent, open conversations with each employee to understand their needs and desires.

Finally, when providing external learning opportunities, companies can consider offering financial incentives to encourage their employees to participate. Workers who are offered the resources to learn new skills are often more motivated. Financial incentives -- such as increased training and development budgets, educational rebates and employee grants to attend training and conferences -- increase the likelihood that employees will take advantage of upskilling opportunities.

Some upskilling strategies include:

  • Job-specific upskilling and credential programs. This strategy offers employees training specific to their jobs which can enhance their current skill sets, such as with lessons on a specialty software used by only a small portion of the organization. Credential programs -- which result in a professional certificate -- are also great opportunities for employees to improve upon their current skill sets.
  • Personal development plans. Encouraging employees to create a personal development plan that addresses the abilities each employee personally wants to improve upon and the new skills they would like to learn empowers workers to create their own upskilling program. Employees are allowed to choose what they would like to do instead of being told what the company thinks they should do.
  • Devote time during the workday. Employees with personal development plans should be allowed time during the workday to dedicate to their upskilling efforts.

Some specific upskilling opportunities include:

  • Virtual and online courses. Use training software and an online training platform to allow employees to train from home, at a time that works for them, rather than forcing workers to attend inconvenient, on-site development sessions at specific times.
  • Mentoring and shadowing. Most companies have experts on specific subject matters already included in their workforce. Use these experts to train other employees with real-world experience and advice that can't be taught in a classroom setting. In addition, the experts receive an opportunity to improve their leadership skills.
  • "Lunch-and-learn" sessions. This opportunity is especially beneficial for employees who feel they do not have enough time in their workday to devote to training sessions. "Lunch-and-learn" sessions allow workers to use their lunch break for training. These sessions often involve an expert from outside the company who can teach employees by sharing their knowledge on a specific subject.
  • This upskilling opportunity focuses on training in quick bursts -- such as short videos followed by fast exercises and quizzes that demonstrate understanding. Microlearning sessions typically last between five and 10 minutes, allowing employees to make use of them at almost any time, such as during short breaks throughout the day or during a lunch break.

Pitfalls of upskilling

When creating an upskilling strategy, organizations must recognize that training programs and upskilling opportunities can be expensive. Furthermore, there are several risks that should be avoided when designing the strategy. This includes:

Offering old-fashioned training. Old-fashioned training -- such as in-person presentations and lectures -- can be ineffective. The training available to employees should be relevant, convenient and engaging. A learning management system (LMS) allows an organization to choose from different types of content delivery, various assessment features and specific analytics that assess the success of the training. In addition, the ability to offer mobile learning compatibility makes committing to training easier and more accessible. Furthermore, an LMS can help a company track its employees' completion and performance analytics, which can then be used to improve training for better future results.

Offering training as a one-time event. Upskilling works best when employees experience training as an ongoing effort, not just once or every once in a while. New skills require time and practice to understand, but employees also need to continuously develop their skills to remain relevant and master evolving job requirements. Continuous learning can be facilitated by frequently releasing job aids, such as process infographics, mentorship programs and checklists.

Upskilling benefits

Upskilling helps current employees learn new job skills, makes the company more attractive to job applicants and improves the employee experience. Furthermore, while upskilling programs are expensive, they generate a strong return on investment (ROI). Creating ongoing training opportunities for workers is often cheaper than addressing workplace problems. Providing free training also increases employee retention rates, thus decreasing turnover and lowering hiring and onboarding costs.

Other upskilling benefits include:

  • Improved employee engagement. Potential and current employees want professional development and training opportunities in their job and they will look for opportunities that provide these options. Upskilling satisfies these employee demands.
  • Optimized employee productivity. Improving employee engagement will ultimately increase productivity. Also, if employees don't understand the technology they work with, then they will not excel in their jobs. Therefore, upskilling employees in new technologies is necessary for improving their productivity.
  • Improved employee retention. Upskilling decreases employee turnover. When workers feel their employer is invested in their professional growth, then they are more likely to remain committed to the company. Upskill training can also make employees happier and more motivated to complete their work.
  • Increased customer satisfaction. Happy employees often directly impact and improve the customer experience. Furthermore, employees are able to use their new skills to better solve customer issues with more efficiency, creativity and innovation.
  • Keeping up with the industry. Learning new skills is often necessary to remain competitive. Upskilling is an effective way to ensure organizations maintain and increase their competitive market standing.

Differences between reskilling and upskilling

Upskilling refers to providing current employees with additional skills. On the other hand, reskilling refers to replacing an employee's outdated skills with new skills that meet the needs of the changing market. Reskilling often requires an employee to be sent back to college or a trade school to earn a degree or certification in a different field.

An example of upskilling could be a software development company training its developers in a new language that will be used to develop new products.

An example of reskilling could be a construction worker who goes back to school to become a software developer.

This was last updated in February 2020

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