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What is upskilling?

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

Upskilling facilitates continuous learning, which is the ongoing expansion of knowledge and skill sets. These additional skills improve the worker's current role performance and can potentially advance them in their career path.

Continuous education or training is provided to employees in several ways, such as skill development courses, certifications or mentorships. Additional upskilling techniques include virtual or online courses, mentoring and shadowing, lunch-and-learn sessions, and microlearning.

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 relevant, specialized skills. Upskilling lets organizations close the digital talent gap and fill these open positions while maintaining their current workforce and creating learning experiences.

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 skills and other skill sets. As job descriptions and requirements change, companies are forced to either find new talent or fill the gaps through upskilling.

Through upskilling, companies can save money by increasing their current employees' abilities 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 communicate to workers that they're valued and have a dedicated future with the company.

Overall, upskilling is important for the following reasons:

  • Job roles and their requirements can change quickly.
  • 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.
  • It increases employee retention.
  • Hiring freezes and tight job markets mean organizations must find new talent for required roles in-house, which upskilling enables.
  • 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 helps businesses ensure their upskilling efforts align 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 might not help the business in the long term. Therefore, an organization should focus on how it can improve its core skills to increase long-term value. However, it's still necessary to stay current with industry trends and to use 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 them. In this step, an organization determines factors such as the following:

  • Whether a volume training session is needed or if one-on-one lessons would be more beneficial.
  • Whether the training can be done internally or if an external educational institution needs to be hired.
  • 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 career goals and tailor an upskilling plan to them. Since each person possesses different skill sets and goals, a different upskilling strategy is needed for each employee, depending on their current knowledge, role within the organization, how that role is evolving and the new technology requirements necessary to continue to efficiently perform the job. It's important to communicate with managers throughout this stage of the upskilling strategy to ensure they're having frequent, open conversations with each employee to understand their needs and desires.

Finally, when providing external learning opportunities, companies might 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 trainings and conferences -- increase the likelihood that employees will take advantage of upskilling opportunities.

Some upskilling strategies include the following:

  • Job-specific upskilling and credential programs. This strategy offers employees training specific to their jobs that can enhance their current skill sets, e.g., with lessons on 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 their current skill sets.
  • Personal development plans. Encouraging employees to create a personal development plan that addresses the abilities they want to improve and the new skills they would like to learn empowers them to create their own upskilling program. Employees can 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 given time during the workday to dedicate to their upskilling efforts.
  • Use third-party services. Some companies might be able to custom design their upskilling programs; however, not every organization has the time or resources to do so. These organizations can instead use third-party ;learning platforms that feature courses and certifications for different topics, skills and tools.

Specific upskilling opportunities include the following:

  • Virtual and online courses. This uses training software and an online training platform to let employees train from home at a time that works for them, rather than forcing workers to attend inconvenient, onsite development sessions at specific times.
  • Mentoring and shadowing. Most companies have experts on specific subject matter 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, this enables experts to improve their leadership skills.
  • Lunch-and-learn sessions. These are beneficial for employees who feel they don't have enough time in their workday to devote to training sessions. Lunch-and-learn sessions let workers 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.
  • Microlearning. 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, letting employees use 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. In addition, the following risks should be avoided when designing the strategy:

1. Offering old-fashioned training. 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 learning through mobile apps makes committing to training easier and more accessible. Furthermore, an LMS can help a company track its employees' completion and performance analytics, which can be used to improve training for better future results.

2. Offering training as a one-time event. Upskilling works best when employees experience training as an ongoing effort, not just once or occasionally. 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. Organizations should create a culture of continuous learning, which can be facilitated by frequently releasing job aids, such as process infographics, mentorship programs and checklists.

3. Approaching upskilling as a one-size-fits-all approach. Developing the same training program for every employee won't work, as each employee has different goals and aspirations. Personalizing each employee's training means they can focus on learning skills that align with both their job and their goals for the future.

4. Inaccurately identifying skills gaps. Accurately identifying skills and performance gaps informs the organization and individual about what resources and activities are needed for upskilling. This prevents investing in irrelevant skills. Completing surveys and assessments can help measure employee skills gaps properly.

5. Not applying new skills. Employees should be able to apply the new skills they learn in the workplace. This helps reinforce the learned skills as employees apply them in a realistic environment.

Workplace learning quotes from leaders.
By accurately identifying skills and performance gaps, organizations and individuals learn what resources and activities are needed for upskilling.

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 bottom line and return on investment. Creating ongoing training opportunities for workers is often less expensive 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 the following:

  • Improves employee engagement. Potential and current employees want professional development and training opportunities in their jobs, and they will look for roles that provide these options. Upskilling satisfies these employee demands.
  • Optimizes employee productivity. Improving employee engagement ultimately increases productivity. Also, if employees don't understand the technology they work with, they won't excel in their jobs. Therefore, upskilling employees in new technologies is necessary for improving their productivity.
  • Improves employee retention. Upskilling decreases employee turnover. When workers feel their employer is invested in their professional growth, they're more likely to remain committed to the company. Upskill training can also make employees happier and more motivated to complete their work.
  • Increases customer satisfaction. Happy employees often directly affect and improve the customer experience. Furthermore, employees can use their new skills to solve customer issues with more efficiency, creativity and innovation.
  • Creates an image of a caring employer. Having an upskilling program shows that an organization is willing to invest in its employees. This can make it easier to attract new staff.
  • Keeps 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.
  • Creates a flexible team. Training employees on their current and future goals also creates a flexible team that has a wealth of different skills to call upon when needed.

Differences between reskilling and upskilling

Upskilling refers to providing current employees with additional skills. These new skills are learned to improve or expand upon a current role or to become qualified for the next step in a person's career path. An example of upskilling could be a software development company training its developers in a new language they will use to develop new products.

Reskilling, on the other hand, refers to learning new skills for an unrelated role or to make a career change. Reskilling often requires an employee to go back to college or a trade school to earn a degree or certification in a different field. An example of reskilling could be a construction worker who goes back to school to become a software developer.

Upskilling develops employees for a linear path in their career, while reskilling is typically used as a lateral movement for a person's career.

Organizations can use these six steps to build an effective upskilling program that can be customized to each employee's needs.

This was last updated in November 2023

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