Upskill or reskill? The decision-making process around employee learning

Ira S. Wolfe

President, Success Performance Solutions

As the “Great Resignation” continues, more workers are reevaluating the skills they’ll need to not only further their careers but ensure they’ll have a place in today’s ever-changing and more agile and distributed workforce.

In the past, management offered to train employees only after they proved their loyalty and oftentimes, perseverance. But this outdated “apprentice and master” approach to skills development no longer makes sense for the current landscape. In fact, 70% of employed workers would switch jobs today if a new employer offered the opportunity to learn new skills.

Upskilling (teaching new skills to do the same or similar job) and reskilling (training to do a different job) have emerged as key priorities for organizations looking to successfully navigate the future of work. But these programs are much more than just a perk businesses can slap on their job requisitions.

Robust upskilling and reskilling programs are essential for organizations to nurture, grow and harvest their own skilled workforce — and to do it quickly if they expect to slow down today’s hire-quit-hire flywheel. There are no people trees that recruiters can shake to make more qualified, skilled workers drop out.

At the same time, more workers are craving to learn these skills. In order to find success, companies need to understand their workforce’s current skillsets so they can prescribe the right training programs at the right time for employees to develop the future skills they’ll need.

Understanding when to upskill versus reskill

In the past, a job skill learned in someone’s early 20s could last a career. But today the half-life of a job skill is less than five years. Technical skills are even shorter, lasting just two and a half years. In fact, Gartner found that 58% of the workforce needs new skills in order to successfully do their job today.

To upskill, or to reskill? That is the question. The two approaches to solving skills gaps are often mentioned interchangeably. However, minimizing the distinct differences sets people up for failure. Upskilling helps prepare employees for major changes in their current roles. For example, a retailer might upskill its employees with training in digital marketing or data analysis to prepare them for a business transition to e-commerce.

Reskilling, however, takes skill training to a whole new level. Take the telemarketer or bank teller who is recruited to reskill for a job in clinical healthcare. While it’s a great idea to shift people from declining industries to high-growth, in-demand jobs, these career transitions often fail. Why?

Reskilling requires workers to change routines, be vulnerable, make mistakes and unlearn many skills that are no longer necessary. Workers have been programmed for decades to equate “Who am I?” with “What do you do?” Reskilling tests that personal fragility and requires the confidence to detach our self-worth to the job we do in a world that still places a lot of status on one’s job title.

To position workers to find success with appropriate learning opportunities, organizations must first understand the current skillset of their workforce, to know how to teach them the skills they’ll need for their current career path or whether they need to be retrained for a new role altogether.

Start by identifying the skills you have — and the ones you need

Unfortunately, most employers stall at the first and most critical stage of addressing the problem: “What are the specific new skills my employees need?”

Too often, organizations’ learning programs prioritize factors like costs, time and resources over connecting employees with the actual skills they need to be successful in their roles. In order to ensure the success of upskilling and reskilling efforts, organizations need to first understand their workforce’s current skills and discover where skills gaps might exist.

Knowing where you need to close skills gaps can help you determine what future training will be required for teams, and then identify what traits are needed beyond technical training to lead to successful employee growth and development.

Transparency into existing skills also allows you to invest more efficiently into talent software and solutions that support upskilling and reskilling efforts. Through richer insights into your workforce’s skills, you can eliminate the guesswork around what training is needed — helping you to match people with learning content to fill existing skills gaps.

Tapping into soft skills, like adaptability, is critical

But providing the right technical training is still only half of the equation for developing talent. The other half is the non-technical traits employees will need in order to convert skills that are taught into skills that are valuable.

For more than two decades, organizations have been obsessed with STEM skills and given mere lip service to human skills. But as Matt Sigelman, CEO and founder of Burning Glass Technologies, points out in the book The Adaptation Advantage:

“One of the most important trends for jobs in the future is the rise of hybrid jobs. In those roles, you need both technology fluency and human skills to be successful…this is not a choice between either technology skills or human skills, but rather a combination of both.”

And Sigelman isn’t alone: World Economic Forum, Deloitte, Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey have all studied the skills that make people employable, lead to job satisfaction and increase productivity in the future of work. Not surprisingly, these foundational skills included digital literacy and collaboration — skills that are less technical in nature.

But above all, adaptability consistently topped the list of links to a higher likelihood of employment. Why? Because adaptability is one of the most important traits needed for employees to learn new skills. Whether it’s learning to code or using emotional intelligence to solve problems — culture, markets and demands will change, and so will the proficiency and relevancy of the skills we need to do our jobs.

To keep pace, adaptability will play an integral role in organizations’ upskilling and reskilling programs. And employees are much more adaptable than companies often give them credit for, especially if an organization understands how to build and tailor learning programs that speak to their workforce’s needs.

By understanding skills gaps, identifying your current skills and knowing where to supplement non-technical skills, you can help your organization upskill or reskill its workers. Providing the right training not only helps employees build skills for the future, but also keeps them engaged while improving overall organizational adaptability.

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