Reskilling vs. Upskilling: What's the Difference?
By April Schmidt
You may be familiar with upskilling — the process of obtaining new skills to advance in your career — but have you encountered “reskilling”? In today’s volatile job market, professional agility is key, and the more companies can expand their existing employees’ skill sets, the more resilient both the company and its employees will be, no matter what happens in the future.
Let’s explore the difference between reskilling and upskilling, and how an open-minded approach to training can help your organization adapt to changing industry trends.
What Is Reskilling?
Professionally speaking, reskilling is the process of acquiring new skills to transition into a different — but not necessarily higher — role within an organization. Employees can reskill to take on a newly created role or to fill an opening left by a former employee.
Technological advancements are often the impetus for reskilling programs in any industry, since new tools require new skill sets to operate them. These advancements can be big or small — from large-scale workflow automation to time management tools — but when an employee is not properly trained on new tech, they can slow productivity through no fault of their own.
Take, for instance, the transition from cash-based retail transactions to cards or virtual wallets. A brick-and-mortar business that formerly only processed cash or checks at the point of sale may need to invest in card readers, point-of-sale software and hardware, and accounting programs that automatically track transactions. New technology requires comprehensive training — otherwise, formerly efficient employees may slow productivity because they are not yet comfortable using the new tools.
The introduction of new technology may even create the need for new roles, such as tech support or eCommerce sales manager, which can be filled by current employees who reskill accordingly.
What Is Upskilling?
Upskilling is the process of updating or enhancing one’s skills to take on more responsibilities within an existing role. Upskilling programs are often used to address skills gaps within departments or to adapt to industry changes. The introduction of automation presents a significant need for upskilling across many sectors, as existing employees need to learn to operate or work alongside robots or other automated systems.
In the retail transaction example described in the previous section, employees will need to upskill on new sales programs and processes while maintaining a high level of customer service and extensive product knowledge. If there is no need (or room) for new hires, current employees must become familiar and comfortable with new tools to maintain business operations.
The terms “reskilling” and “upskilling” are often used synonymously, but there is a key difference: Reskilling helps an employee transition to a new role within their organization, while upskilling helps them enhance their skill set within their existing role. Both can prepare an individual to advance in their career.
Benefits of Upskilling & Reskilling
Both reskilling and upskilling programs actively involve employees in continuous improvement initiatives, instilling a sense of motivation and pride in their work. This benefits both the employees themselves and their employer by promoting agility and adaptability, two invaluable qualities for any future-minded business or individual. Further benefits to employees include:
- Higher engagement: Being tapped for reskilling or upskilling opportunities makes employees feel essential, which has a direct impact on their investment in their work. An engaged employee demonstrates increased confidence, efficiency, perseverance, curiosity and pride in their accomplishments.
- Feelings of job security: Organizations don’t create new roles on a whim; when a current employee is asked to step into a new role, it implies that their contributions are necessary to the ongoing success of the business and will be for the foreseeable future.
- Chances for promotion: More skills and experience lead to the potential for higher-paying or more advanced roles in a given organization or industry, should an employee wish to move on from their current employer.
- Professional diversity: Reskilling and upskilling enable an employee to diversify their skill set and, by extension, their fitness for different types of roles in their organization or throughout their career.
- Personal validation: Having the opportunity to expand and enhance one’s skills through work is a significant confidence boost. Being asked to learn new skills on the job signals that your presence is valued.
- Growth mindset: Often, learning new skills sparks a drive to keep going! In the process of reskilling or upskilling, an employee may realize a new or renewed interest in continuing education and be motivated to pursue ongoing professional development opportunities.
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It’s easy to see that the benefits of reskilling and upskilling for employees lead to larger benefits for the overall organization. These benefits include:
- Improved recruiting process: When current employees reskill or upskill to take on hard-to-fill roles, it opens up opportunities for entry-level hires, which are generally easier to identify and recruit.
- Reduced turnover: More engaged employees often stay in one place for longer, reducing the need to fill empty positions.
- Better qualified candidates: Reskilling and upskilling can give employers a better idea of existing skills gaps, which makes it easier to identify needs and recruit candidates with specific skill sets.
- Optimized resources: Skills gaps don’t always signal a need to hire new employees. Through reskilling and upskilling, companies can leverage their existing talent pool to meet outstanding needs without taking on more employees or investing time and money in the hiring process.
- Competitive edge: A workforce with diversified skills — and the ability to upskill or reskill accordingly — makes an organization highly competitive in its industry. This agility is invaluable amid industry shifts, such as the widespread introduction of new technologies.
- Positive reputation: When an organization actively invests in employees’ growth, word gets around. If candidates know that a company offers professional development, it makes open job opportunities that much more attractive.
How to Implement Reskilling and Upskilling Programs
The process of building and launching new training programs will look different for every business, but a successful implementation will follow the same general steps.
1. Prepare for the future as much as you can. If you know your industry is poised to adopt a new technology or process, don’t wait to update your training programs. Identify future needs now, including any new roles that need to be created, which roles will become obsolete and which employees may be good candidates for reassignment within the company.
2. Don’t overlook current needs. You may currently have job openings or skills gaps waiting to be filled — could existing employees reskill or upskill to fill these needs? How will neglecting to fill these gaps affect overall productivity? Look for ways to utilize existing talent to minimize hiring needs.
3. Identify ideal candidates for skills development. Employees who demonstrate motivation and are genuinely invested in their work are clear candidates, but others may not be so apparent. This is where an employee engagement survey can help identify employees who may not be invested in their current jobs, but could be re-engaged through training opportunities.
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4. Define reskilling or upskilling criteria. Tools such as skills matrices can help illustrate which skill sets are sufficiently covered, highlight which skills are needed and provide a clear-cut rubric to indicate when an employee has upskilled or reskilled to fill a skills gap.
5. Communicate the need for ongoing training and seek buy-in. Employee engagement increases when employees are asked for their input or buy-in on a new process or policy. Without employee buy-in, “future endeavors will require re-engaging all over again, perpetuating the cycle of resistance,” according to the Harvard Business Review.
6. Choose a method for training employees. There are so many formats to choose from: Traditional, in-person training may be the gold standard for your company, but there are also virtual, hybrid, self-paced or just-in-time (i.e. on-the-job) training programs available. Again, an employee engagement survey may help you identify which method would best suit your employees.
7. Track program success. Record metrics such as training program attendance, assessment performance and even production time to gauge whether your upskilling or reskilling efforts are effective. Use the results to tweak the programs going forward. Don’t forget to ask employees how they think the programs could be improved.
Even if your process looks different, the key to any successful reskilling or upskilling plan is to always be thinking ahead — stay apprised of impending industry changes and prepare accordingly. Setting your employees up for future success not only prepares them for fruitful careers, but strengthens your long-term business performance.
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Senior Manager of Strategy and Customer Success
April brings a deep and passionate focus on organizational transformation and employee development. Her career experience includes roles in healthcare as Social Worker, Medical and Behavioral Health Coordinator, Team Lead, Quality Coordinator, Clinical Improvement Specialist, Quality Manager and Director Strategic Initiatives, in Higher Education as Program Chair and Adjunct Faculty, and with Consulting firms as a Project Manager III and Organizational Development Practice Manager. As her career advanced, she implemented Lean and Six Sigma principles across a variety of industries to support change management and process improvement initiatives that engaged employees resulting in high-performing teams. April holds a Bachelor of Science in Social Work, Masters Social Work, Masters in Management & Organizational Behavior and Master Science Strategic Management with an emphasis in Human Resources. Her education combined with skills in Lean, Six Sigma, and TWI, April provides the Institute clients with unmatched knowledge and skills. April is also very active as Board member and Vice Chair of Strategy for SPQA Virginia & DC, Board member for AME-Southeast Region as well as Board member and Co-Chair for Professional Development for ASQ Lean Enterprise Division.
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