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Understanding the difference between reskilling, upskilling and new skilling

Cornerstone Editors

As technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), predictive analytics and blockchain become more commonplace, organizations are struggling to find candidates with the skills needed to keep up and evolve these new systems and platforms. More than 80% of talent development professionals report a skills gap in their organization, and 78% anticipate a future skills gap.

"Companies are having to change what they do and how they do it," says Mikell Parsch, CEO of global IT training company New Horizons Computer Learning Centers. "The double change—pace of technology and pace of business evolution—is making workplace skills training essential." To bring the skills they need to their workforce, today’s HR leaders must rethink professional development programs and look into personalized learning courses, skill-specific workshops or company-sponsored degrees or certifications to meet their needs. They also need to take into consideration the upsurge in remote work as a result of COVID-19, likely investing more in online rather than instructor-led learning opportunities.

But one-off reskilling or upskilling efforts simply aren’t enough. To ensure their workforce remains competitive and agile, organizations will need to constantly evaluate employees’ individual capabilities and the future skills needed for their business to thrive—setting the stage for continuous learning. To get a better understanding of how reskilling and upskilling fit within this broader "new skilling" strategy, let’s examine each.

Reskilling: A necessary about-face

What is reskilling?

Reskilling involves training employees on an entirely new set of skills to prepare them to take on a different role within the company. This typically occurs when workers’ previous tasks or responsibilities become irrelevant, often due to advances in technology.

"Businesses do this because an employee may fit well in a team and have marketplace or company knowledge that would be difficult to replace," explains Parsch. "To keep that employee, the company just needs to update their skills to match new systems and new capabilities." Reskilling may involve obtaining a new degree, certification or education in a different field or area of expertise.

Last year, for example, Amazon started retraining programs for 100,000 of its workers to put them on a relevant career path in the face of automation. In this case, warehouse floor workers were prepared for potential new roles as IT technicians, and low-level coders were transitioned into data scientists. Reskilling allows businesses to retain reliable workers and minimize turnover by investing in employee growth.

The trouble with reskilling

Many organizations aren’t proactive enough with their reskilling efforts, waiting until they see a decline in skills and/or not properly identifying their specific needs (for example, overlooking critical-thinking skills in favor of strictly technological capabilities). A more holistic approach to skills development (what we’re referring to as "new skilling") involving regular evaluation will greatly improve a company’s ability to quickly and successfully adapt.

Upskilling: Expanding current skill sets

What is upskilling?

As opposed to reskilling’s 180-degree pivot, upskilling occurs when workers improve upon existing skills and deepen their abilities and impact within their area of expertise. By expanding their knowledge, employees become better positioned for additional responsibilities and higher-level roles on a particular career track.

For instance, a marketer will need to learn new digital tools and skills to better engage with their audience (and reach new ones) on emerging social platforms. If they do so successfully, they will simultaneously give their business a boost and set themselves up for future success in more advanced positions.

Make upskilling a staple of employee development

Providing employees with upskilling opportunities should be top of mind for HR executives and part of a larger, continuous new skilling strategy devoted to developing industry-leading talent. After all, it’s a win-win situation and a smart way to stay on top of best practices in the field. Similar to reskilling, upskilling also tends to build strong inter-company relationships. "Upskilling can keep good leaders from leaving to join your competition," Parsch says. "By investing in your team and showing that you want them to grow, they are more likely to stay."

New Skilling: Continuous learning for an adaptable workforce

The demand for skilled talent is only going to continue to grow, and the skills gap will only widen as technology advancements and societal shifts disrupt the status quo. The new world of work requires people to continuously hone their skills to stay relevant and improve their employability. The term new skilling represents all types of continuous learning to help build high-demand skills, whether an individual is trying to upskill current capabilities or they need complete reskilling to build entirely new capabilities.

A new skilling mindset keeps both a workforce and a company agile by ensuring learning initiatives are relevant to future business objectives and tailored to the needs of learners. This is simply the new reality—no business will survive for long without reskilling and upskilling initiatives driven by a new skilling strategy. By regularly identifying what skills will be needed in the future and which of those employees currently possess, organizations can build more thoughtful, continuous skilling programs to effectively develop those abilities in their workforce.

Conventional approaches for closing skills gaps are failing to keep pace with revolutions in work and technology. Download this research report from HCI and the Cornerstone People Research Lab to learn about six recommended action items for building a new-skilling approach that adapts to the changing needs of your organization and your people.

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