Key takeaways

  • Upskilling programs are less focused on teaching employees entirely new skill sets and more on enhancing their existing skills as they grow in their careers.
  • Transparency and engagement are the two biggest keys to upskilling program success; make sure employees feel seen and heard when designing your upskilling program.
  • A variety of learning management software solutions, online course programs, and other resources can help you streamline the upskilling process and even create your own upskilling coursework.

What is upskilling in the workplace?

Upskilling in the workplace is a focused effort, usually from HR or organizational leadership, to give employees the resources they need to enhance and build on their existing skills. Upskilling programs typically offer on-the-job training and career path resources that help employees clearly visualize career growth opportunities and take the necessary steps toward achieving new career milestones that interest them. 

Examples of upskilling include:

  • A financial analyst at a consulting firm receives 1:1 mentorship and completes online training courses to become a specialized finance solutions architect.
  • An on-page SEO analyst is trained by their team lead to take on technical SEO responsibilities.
  • A team manager receives focused leadership training in order to become a successful senior manager.
  • A digital marketing specialist completes a Google Analytics certification and a social media marketing certification course to improve their ability to manage and measure audience engagement.

What’s the difference?

Unlike reskilling, upskilling is focused on strengthening a person’s current job skills and building related skills that will help the employee further specialize in their career. Reskilling focuses on teaching employees entirely new skills so they can shift to a different kind of role in the company.

Reskilling and upskilling are slightly different and serve different organizational purposes, but both are important strategies for optimizing your organization’s internal talent pool.

How to successfully implement an upskilling program

Setting up an upskilling program for your organization requires thoughtful design, buy-in from leaders and managers, and a continued willingness to adjust to employee needs and interests. For the best chances of success, follow these steps when starting your upskilling program:

1. Seek out employee input on knowledge gaps and areas of interest

Your organization’s leadership likely has an idea of where knowledge and skills gaps exist in the organization, so it’s a good idea to get their input and support when performing a skills gap analysis.

However, you should also place a premium on your employees’ opinions when it comes to designing an upskilling program. Individual employees have first-hand knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses, and if they’re invested in their role and committed to career growth, they probably already have ideas for training resources that will help them fill their knowledge gaps. Leverage survey tools to collect employee feedback on knowledge gaps and areas of interest.

Similarly, establishing a strong line of communication between employees and their managers and mentors helps boost employees’ confidence when it comes to their career goals. It also gives managers and mentors more visibility into relevant knowledge and skills gaps that need to be addressed.

2. Develop clear training and career paths

Transparency is key when it comes to encouraging employees to engage with upskilling programs. That’s why it’s important to clearly communicate which training courses are required and which ones are encouraged for career growth in various departments and roles. 

Career paths and roadmaps are great tools for illustrating what competencies, certifications, and other milestones must be achieved to grow into either a specialist or a leadership role within a department. These illustrations can be part of a competency framework, sit inside a learning management solution, or act as standalone resources.

Regardless of how you set up your training and career paths, be sure to share this information with employees and keep these resources updated as your internal role requirements change or evolve.

3. Invest in relevant training programs and software

Organizations that want to automate or otherwise streamline upskilling program implementation should invest in third-party learning resources. Learning management software is typically the most helpful upskilling program resource, as it helps you track employee participation, automate course assignments, and even build your own training programs.

Udacity, TalentLMS, and BetterUp are all great examples of software that can take the guesswork out of upskilling program management, helping leaders create and manage training programs that are both interesting and relevant.

Udacity offers nanodegree programs for relevant workplace skills like introductory programming. Source: Udacity.

For the best possible results, you should mix in a variety of training and learning resources that fit different learning styles and interests. Consider building a digital and a physical library with materials on various topics, subscribing to online certification courses and programs, providing vouchers for local trade and software schools, extending employee coaching opportunities, and taking other steps that show you’re willing to get creative and mold your program to your employee’s interests and your company’s growth goals.

More on a similar topic: 8 Ways to Increase Employee Engagement With Your LMS

4. Assess employee engagement on a regular basis

Especially if you’re using learning management software or another tool with administrative reporting and dashboarding capabilities, your HR or learning and development team will want to measure the success of upskilling programs. The data these tools provide is useful on its own, but it’s much more helpful if your HR team determines employee engagement goals and other KPIs in advance.

TalentLMS displays a dashboard with overviews of LMS engagement metrics like logins, users with activity, course completion rates, and active vs. inactive courses.
This admin dashboard from TalentLMS allows business leaders to easily track upskilling program engagement across the organization and at an individual level. Source: TalentLMS

If you’re not sure what to measure when assessing employee engagement with upskilling programs, consider looking at the following data points and setting goals and KPIs around them:

  • Percentage of employees who have completed one course during this week, month, or quarter.
  • Percentage of employees who have completed more than one course or a certification program during this week, month, or quarter.
  • Percentage of employees who have logged into the software without completing any courses.
  • Percentage of employees who have never logged into the software.
  • Percentage of employees who have completed one-and-done programs versus multiple training programs.
  • Percentage of employees who have earned a promotion and completed relevant coursework toward that promotion.

5. Reward employee participation with career growth opportunities

Employees should see themselves and their peers succeed as a result of completing upskilling program initiatives. If your leaders commit to an upskilling program, it’s important that this program’s results and employee participation factor into promotions, raises, and other opportunities to grow within the company. Making upskilling part of your competency frameworks and role-banding efforts will motivate employees to build on their skills and make the most of the learning resources you provide.

But rewards don’t have to always be promotions and raises; game-based learning can make upskilling programs both fun and rewarding, giving users the opportunity to earn relevant badges or perhaps points or tokens that help them reach a larger personal or professional goal.

Bottom line: Support employee development with an upskilling program

Businesses are sometimes hesitant to get started with upskilling programs because of the initial cost and setup effort required. However, what business leaders often don’t realize is that many free and near-free resources are available to help manage upskilling programs. 

Additionally, upskilling programs quickly prove their worth, giving employees the skills and confidence they need to do better work and grow into more experienced roles through quiet hiring. When relevant and interesting upskilling resources are made available to employees, they’re more likely to avoid burnout and stay with the company as it invests in their personal and professional growth.

Upskilling programs support both employee retention and internal hiring efforts, making these programs valuable to everyone from the CEO to the newest hire.

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