illustration of a person using a laptop to upskill

In a survey conducted by The Harris Poll, 70% of employees say they’re somewhat likely to leave their current company to move to an employer that invests in learning and development. How can you keep your best employees from hitting the road? Throw your weight behind their desire to learn, grow, and advance their careers. Build an upskill program to keep them engaged, retained, and show that their career success is as important to you as it is to them.

Picture this: Charlotte is focused, driven, and hungry to advance her career. During a one-on-one with her boss, she mentions she’d love to learn more about using data to improve her sales techniques. “We’ll look into it!” her manager tells her.

… and then nothing happens. For months. Charlotte brings it up again in her performance review. “Yep, it’s on the list!” her manager says. And yet, crickets.

A few months later, Charlotte accepts a role with a company that will fully support her growth and development. Sigh. This happens more often than you think. And a good upskilling program can prevent this burnout and churn.

What does it mean to upskill?

Upskilling helps employees expand their skillset so that they can move their careers forward. This could mean improving existing skills or learning entirely new ones. 

When employers formalize and standardize these efforts, it becomes an upskilling program. While upskill programs focus on the core goal of developing employees, the learning itself can be quite flexible. It may include: 

  • Courses (online or in-person)
  • Demonstrations
  • Job shadowing
  • Mentoring
  • Seminars and presentations
  • Tuition reimbursement or professional development stipends

What are the benefits of an upskill program?

To create and launch an upskilling program requires elbow grease, but it offers plenty of benefits for both employees and employers, including:

  • Better employee retention: The American Upskilling Study released by Amazon and Gallup states that 61% of employees cite an upskilling program as “extremely” or “very” important when weighing the decision to remain at their current job. Additionally, 71% of employees say that job training and development increase their job satisfaction, giving them even more reason to stick around.
  • Fewer skills gaps: Data from McKinsey & Company shows that 87% of companies worldwide are aware that they either have a skill gap or will have one within a few years. Upskilling programs help companies identify those current and future gaps and bolster current employees’ skills to avoid a shortfall of expertise and knowledge.
  • Easier hiring: Upskill programs are especially advantageous for hiring. Companies need to hire fewer people because there’s less employee turnover. They also build a deep well of internal talent for promotions and new positions. Additionally, learning and development are great benefits to tout in employer marketing materials: Amazon and Gallup’s study found that 66% of workers ages 18-24 rank “learning new skills” as the third-most important perk when considering job opportunities—ranked just behind health insurance and disability benefits. 

5 steps to build a top-notch upskilling program

The advantages of an upskilling program are undeniable. And you can create an effective (and even personalized) upskilling program regardless of the size of your company. Here’s how. 

1. Set goals for your upskill program

Like any other business initiative, it’s helpful to start with an objective. Why do you want to launch an upskill program in the first place? Maybe you want to…

  • Improve employee retention
  • Increase internal promotions
  • Improve employee feedback scores

… or something else. Figure out the reason for this program, and then set a relevant benchmark to monitor your efforts and determine its success. 

2. Research the needs and demands of the program

Ultimately, your upskilling program should satisfy a need. And the real magic happens when you meet the needs of your employees and your organization.

How do you strike that balance? A skills gap analysis can determine what will benefit your company. And employee surveys will give you valuable insight into what and how they want to learn. 

Conduct a skills gap analysis

A skills gap is when your employees don’t currently possess a skill that your organization needs. To perform a skills gap analysis, first determine if you want to conduct an analysis of your entire company, a specific department or team, or just an individual.

Once you know your focus:

  • Document responsibilities. What major functions or tasks is the company, department, or employee responsible for?
  • Relate responsibilities to skills. What skills are needed to complete those tasks?
  • Evaluate existing skills. Turn to performance reviews, feedback from managers, documented career paths, employee surveys (more on those next!), and more to get a grasp of existing skills. What’s missing to fulfill the responsibilities you’ve outlined? 

Just like that, you’ve identified your most pressing skill gaps. 

Survey your employees

An upskilling program isn’t about shoving your company’s needs and desires down employees’ throats. Your program is most beneficial when it finds the overlap between what your organization needs and what your employees want

It’s important to bring employees in on the process. Put together a simple survey to collect feedback about their career ambitions and learning preferences. A few questions you could ask include:

  • What next step in your career are you working toward?
  • What topics or skills are you eager to learn?
  • Which learning methods do you enjoy most? 
  • How much time per month would you like to invest in your learning? 

Those answers will be helpful as you start to build out your program. 

3. Categorize your upskill learning programs

Some educational initiatives will apply to nearly every employee in your company, such as leadership and emotional intelligence. But others will be specific to certain jobs or certain employees. Your human resources team won’t need to bolster their Java knowledge, just like your software development team won’t need to build expertise in onboarding best practices. Create a healthy mix between general opportunities and targeted ones to create a well-rounded program for employees. 

Next, look back at the skills you identified during analysis. Place each skill into one of the following categories: 

  • Entire company
  • Specific department or team
  • Job role or individual

Now you can start to build upskilling programs for specific audiences. As you do, you’ll also need to iron out details like:

  • Delivery method: What specific media will you use to deliver the program? Courses? Seminars? Mentorship? Something else?
  • Timing: How often will that program be offered? How long does it last?
  • Content: What topics will you cover? 

This gives you a rough blueprint that you can use as you build out the specifics of any upskill program. 

4. Bring in expertise

The HR team may be launching the upskill program, but they likely won’t know the best resources to support a diverse array of skills. Maybe your software development manager knows an awesome online course that could be part of your program. Or perhaps your head of content marketing is connected with someone who could do a seminar on using data to build a content calendar. It’s important to bring in team leads, department heads, and employees who can offer ideas and material for effective upskill programs. 

These programs aren’t a one-person job. Bring in the expertise of other people to structure a program that’s more targeted, thorough, and impactful. 

5. Launch your upskill program

Package the resources you’ve collected, such as videos, books, courses, mentors, speakers, job shadowing participants, projects, and more. Group them by:

  • Skill (e.g., Python)
  • Job role (e.g., Junior Software Developer)
  • Team (e.g., Software Development)

Some companies create an upskilling program that’s a self-service library collection for employees to tap when they want. Others formalize it even further and create clear paths and schedules that employees follow to move from novice to expert. 

Regardless of your approach, document what’s available and make it accessible to all company managers. When employees express interest in certain skills or subject areas, they will know where to offer them opportunities and materials that support their growth and learning. 

Upskilling is a learning process—for employees and companies

The magic of an upskilling program is that it helps teams fill skill gaps, retains trained talent, and demonstrates to employees that you’re invested in their growth. 

Employees are bound to learn a lot—and so will you. Build an opportunity for feedback into your upskilling program so that employees can share their thoughts, experiences, and ideas. Review your goals to confirm that your program is headed in the right direction. Everything is a learning process—even learning itself.

How to upskill employees for happier teams and better retention