For businesses today, the definition of what counts as a mission-critical skill is evolving. Data and technology are changing the commercial landscape with breakneck speed, and with that change comes an evolution in the kinds of skills, both hard and soft, employers want most. Businesses must find ways to adapt and ensure that employees are provided with learning opportunities designed to instill, develop, and refine the critical skills they need most.
Thus, the concepts of upskilling and reskilling are of particular importance today. Upskilling refers to efforts to improve or enhance an employee’s current skills, whereas reskilling involves training for entirely new skill sets. These similar concepts are often confused or used interchangeably, but in reality, they are designed for distinct purposes. To derive the most value from your team and from your corporate learning investments, understanding exactly when and how to revise and add new skills is crucial. In this article, we’ll help you develop a deeper understanding of the distinctions between the upskilling & reskilling, when to use them, and how to best leverage them for improved performance outcomes.
Defining Upskilling versus Reskilling
When a new performance gap emerges, a business has three options for filling it: hire new talent, retrain current talent, or outsource. Upskilling and reskilling are both examples of looking inward to meet new demands by retaining your current workforce. They can both be described as corporate training processes designed to fill performance and skills gaps through internal means – i.e. the development of current employees, as opposed to external recruitment and hiring. When done right, effective upskilling and reskilling have a bigger impact than just direct performance outcomes: they can boost morale and productivity by making current employees feel valued, invested in, and encouraged.
Training that provides news skills or enhances existing skills in order to expand the employee’s current role beyond its current scope
Training that provides new skills or enhances exiting skills so that an employee can fill a role that is different from their current position
While both terms refer to the process of teaching new skills internally to improve organizational performance, they have distinct end goals and applications. Reskilling has the purpose of teaching new skills so that an employee can perform a new or different job from their current role – i.e. switching from a sales role to a managerial role, after receiving the necessary management training, such as a business simulation. Upskilling, on the other hand, is focused on enhancing an existing skill or skill set in order to expand the employee’s current role beyond its current scope.
Let’s look at the following example. Let’s say one of your marketing coordinators has begun to demonstrate a real strength with data analysis. Though she has little in the way of formal training in data science, the tools she uses to measure the success of marketing initiatives have improved her data fluency and reporting skills significantly. In response, her manager may decide to upskill her new data-related skills with an online data fluency course so that, moving forward, her role can expand to involve even more sophisticated analysis of marketing data. On the other hand, in a reskilling scenario, that same marketing team member may be retrained (reskilled) entirely and moved to a new role as an analyst in another department, based on her newly demonstrated ability and interest in switching to a more data-focused role.
The Organizational Impact of Upskilling & Reskilling
Though the distinctions between upskilling and reskilling may be subtle, the overall organizational impact of choosing one over the other can be more profound. Upskilling has major implications for things like organizational charts, job descriptions, and performance evaluations, etc. – that is, how an organization allocates roles and projects to their team. A widespread upskilling effort within a business could leave the overall organization structure looking quite different than before it started. Using the example above, the marketing coordinator role now includes data-related job tasks and performance measures that it was previously not assigned.
Reskilling can also help change or shape overall organizational maps, by adding or creating new roles and training current employees to fill them, but it doesn’t always do so. Oftentimes, reskilling might leave the overall organizational structure virtually untouched and instead simply have the impact of redistributing team members from one existing role to another. In the above example, under the reskilling approach, neither the marketing coordinator role or analyst role was changed or redefined – the employee was simply moved from one role to the other.
How to know which one to use, and why
There is no one right away to effectively address all your organization’s talent and skills needs, especially considering that those needs are subject to flux due to external demands, challenges, and opportunities. In the same way, there is no such thing as right or wrong when it comes to the Upskilling v. Reskilling distinction. The right approach to filling skill and performance gaps will depend on the context of the training and the overall goals your organization wants to achieve. The diagram below helps describe the differences between the two approaches and the scenarios for when to choose them.
Definition: Training that provides news skills or enhances existing skills in order to expand the employee’s current role beyond its current scope
Choose when you want to:
- Invest in current employees to enhance existing skills
- Promote from within instead of hiring someone completely new
- Make team members feel you’re invested in their growth
Definition: Training that provides new skills or enhances exiting skills so that an employee can fill a role that is different from their current position
Choose when you want to:
- Explore and/or create new roles
- Reassign current team members to newly critical performance areas
- Reassess team members’ fit for their current role
It is not a matter of if, but when, your organization will be faced with new challenges and opportunities that suddenly require new skills to effectively navigate. When this happens, it is important to understand not only exactly what your goals of new skill-building will be, but how you will achieve it. Hiring and outsourcing aside, upskilling and reskilling offer unique benefits and implications that should be considered alongside your overall corporate learning goals. If you would like to learn more about upskilling, reskilling, and how to effectively manage your organization’s corporate learning needs, contact us today.