The world of work is in serious flux, with dramatic advancements in AI and data analytics driving what the World Economic Forum is calling a “fourth industrial revolution.” The organization estimates that half of the global labor force could require some amount of job-skill retraining as soon as 2025. The challenge at hand is urgent, and maybe a bit daunting. But for forward-thinking company leaders, it presents an exciting opportunity to be proactive about future-proofing their workforces by investing in the knowledge and know-how of their teams. 

Upskilling vs reskilling: what’s the difference?

Although every organization’s needs are different, worker retraining efforts tend to fall into two broad categories: upskilling and reskilling. The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they represent distinct approaches to achieving slightly different goals. “Upskilling” involves enhancing an employee’s existing skill set or teaching them new skills that complement or enhance their current role. The goal is to help the employee stay relevant by investing in their growth and, in turn, the growth of the organization. 

“Reskilling,” on the other hand, involves training employees to transition from one job role or function to another within the company. This might be the ideal route if an employee’s current job is becoming obsolete within the organization, or if the organization needs to quickly fill skill gaps in other areas because of industry changes. For example, researchers at MIT Sloan found that during the Great Resignation, growing numbers of employers relied on reskilling existing staff rather than hiring new employees in categories such as technical customer service and IT support.

Investment in upskilling pays off

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Worker reskilling plans can sometimes be met with suspicion from employees, particularly those that are more established in their careers, the MIT Sloan researchers point out. But workers, in general, have been shown to respond well to their companies’ investment in their growth. A 2019 PwC Global CEO survey demonstrated a positive correlation between advanced upskilling programs and improved worker engagement, innovation, and the ability to attract and retain talent. And a new report from the UK e-learning solutions platform imc makes a case for why the aftermath of the Great Resignation calls for a “Great Upskilling,” based on a survey of 2,000 workers in which more than half reported having left a role due to lack of personal or professional development opportunities. 

Upskilling programs: best practices

Prioritize workers who will benefit the most

Steven Mostyn, the Chief Human Resources Officer of, says that his company looks at worker performance to make these decisions. “If an employee has been really doing well in his responsibilities and we are planning to promote him, then we choose training for him to attend in order to upskill and be ready for the upgrade in his responsibilities,” Mostyn says. “An employee performing poorly may also need retraining and sometimes upskilling in order to do their job efficiently.” 

Operationalize the upskilling process

Donna Lubrano, International Business and Virtual Exchange Officer at United Planet, adds that a true “learning organization” would ideally build professional development assessments into workers’ annual or semi-annual performance evaluations as a standard practice. Once managers identify which specific skill gaps might be impeding an employee’s ability to successfully execute their role, they can devise a strategic plan for addressing those gaps that accounts for the company’s big-picture goals and budgetary considerations. That plan should also account for the learning style of the employee in question; companies that adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to skill-building will likely see mixed results. 

Incorporate employee input

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Successful upskilling initiatives should also incorporate an employee’s input. Research shows that when employees are empowered to choose which skills they want to learn, they feel a sense of ownership in the process. A collaborative approach between managers and employees helps ensure that training efforts meet both the individual worker’s goals and the company’s larger vision. Leaders should also provide staff with a clear understanding of future pathways by communicating which opportunities can or will result from acquiring new skills. This not only enables workers to envision a future within the organization, but shows that the organization is committed to investing in their growth. “It demonstrates that the employee is valued, and renews their commitment to the success of the mission,” says Lubrano. 

What not to do

As for what not to do: relying on younger digital-native staff members to take the lead on peer-to-peer technology training is a recipe for resentment from senior staff, and frustration from their younger colleagues. Similarly, Mostyn advises against limiting training and conferences to workers in managerial positions, and then expecting those managers to train their subordinates. “Many managers are not able to properly disseminate what they learned. It’s better to identify employees who need training and directly invest in them,” he says. 

In short, worker retraining efforts are essential for helping workers remain relevant in their fields, and contribute to overall job satisfaction. Upskilling can also boost worker engagement by making employees feel valued and empowered to shape their career trajectories. When companies invest in their workforce’s growth, everyone wins.

The upskilling imperative: now’s the time to future-proof your workforce