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Upskilling and reskilling employees for a competitive edge

To stay competitive and offer a positive employee experience, organizations need to create a culture of learning that focuses on continuous growth.

The hiring market is heating up faster than a July morning in Las Vegas. In response, every business and HR leader needs to refine their strategic approach to employee upskilling and reskilling.

Skills gaps are growing, and organizations that create a culture of learning that focuses on professional development and continuous learning will be the winners. Business models must enable new ways of equipping the employee base with digital transformation abilities, emotional intelligence and other additional training that helps them focus on business goals and attend to their own career progression.

Talent gap and employee learning

Despite mixed economic news, the current demand for key talent is as competitive as it's been in recent history, said Robin Levitt, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based 4D Executive Search, a recruiting agency focused on executive-level talent. But a tight labor market isn't the only challenge organizations face.

Business and HR leaders must face this reality head-on and focus on helping to broaden and augment employees' skill sets.

Upskilling vs. reskilling

The terms upskilling and reskilling are related but distinct career development terms. Many also refer to cross-training when discussing employee learning. Here's a look at each.

  • Upskilling is adding on to current skill sets.
  • Reskilling is learning new skill sets for a different job. 
  • Cross-training is training to broaden the skill set related to the current job. It has elements of both upskilling and reskilling, so the focus here will be on the two above. 

"Upskilling is building on existing skills in a particular domain to bring a higher level of proficiency or to add an area of skills specialization," said Loralie Thostenson, technology talent officer at insurance giant Liberty Mutual, headquartered in Boston. "Reskilling is learning a new set of skills in an area where the individual has little to no exposure."

An example of upskilling is a front-end developer learning to be a full-stack developer, Thostenson said. Reskilling is a systems administrator learning to be an infrastructure engineer, or an individual with no coding experience attending a coding school to learn the skills for a new job role, such as a software developer.

Culture of learning for future skills

The coronavirus crisis demanded an unprecedented level of agility from leaders and employees alike. Each person had to reshape their current role in some way. That need for agility won't go away, even as many parts of the world get the COVID-19 pandemic under control. Digital transformation efforts begun in response to managing a long-term crisis will only gain velocity as leaders seek new ways to compete. And looking to the untapped potential of current employees is an important part of any digital transformation effort.

Businesses and individuals have already adopted a more agile mindset and become gymnastic in their ways of working in response to the COVID-19 crisis, said Mike DePrisco, chief operating officer at the Project Management Institute, a professional project management association, located in Newtown Square, Pa.

Even after the COVID-19 pandemic is in the rearview, corporate learning will be ongoing. But business and HR leaders, recruiters and employees need to understand that job roles will constantly evolve. Change will truly be the rule, not the exception, and the company culture must support employee development with individualized learning and continuous learning to develop essential skills.

No one has the kinds of skills necessary to adapt to all potential changes, so consistently educating and reeducating employees will bridge potential skills gaps, said Jim Pendergast, senior vice president of AltLINE, a national specialty lender and a subsidiary of The Southern Bank, based in Mount Olive, N.C.

Business and HR leaders can't leave this education to chance. Companies must formalize the refitting of employee skill sets to meet the requirements of an ever-shifting definition of work and market demands that is in continuous flux.

"Organizations are having to reconsider who they are, what they do and who their customers -- and competition -- could be," said Peter Hirst, senior associate dean of executive education at MIT Sloan School of Management.

The reality is, organizations that can be more agile, invest in their people with a modern approach, and reskill and upskill quickly will have a significant competitive advantage.
Amy BorsettiSenior director of LinkedIn Learning

"These pivots and reinventions require large-scale upskilling, reskilling and career transformations," Hirst said.

These were necessities in helping to combat an accelerating skills shortage that was problematic long before the pandemic, he said.

While upskilling and reskilling are not new concepts, they've taken on a new and more pronounced sense of urgency. Changes in remote e-commerce, remote work and automation were already underway before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pandemic gave organizations a major push to accelerate these trends.

As a consequence, up to 25 percent more workers will potentially need to switch careers, according to research from McKinsey Global Institute.

They'll need continuous and cross-functional learning to do it and organizations will also need to use learning as a way to prevent employee turnover and create a workforce of happy employees.

"In 2021, it's all about rapid skill building," according to a recent LinkedIn report.

"Nearly 60% of leaders say that upskilling and reskilling is their top concern -- over leadership and management, virtual onboarding and more," said Amy Borsetti, senior director of LinkedIn Learning. "The reality is, organizations that can be more agile, invest in their people with a modern approach, and reskill and upskill quickly will have a significant competitive advantage."

Everyone in the workforce -- even the C-level executive -- must focus on adding skills to their professional repertoire.

A focus on soft skills is key to adding the right skills.

The next generation of leaders will need soft skills that help them support employee productivity.

"[Leaders] will need to learn how to communicate up, down and across at a different pace and with technology that is wildly different than their predecessors," Borsetti said. "They need to build the emotional intelligence to lead inclusively with a workforce that is becoming more diverse."

Developing employee potential to meet future demands

Upskilling focuses on enabling employees to do their current jobs in a better or more modern way. Reskilling is about training an employee to do an entirely different job. But the two approaches do have some newly evolved common ground.

"[The ideal employee skill set] is one that combines technical skills with power skills, including leadership, strategy and digital skills," DePrisco said.

That may be easier said than taught. In today's workplace where AI and automation adoption greatly accelerated during the pandemic, the nature of work and the resulting change in needed skill sets have dramatically shifted.

According to a recent World Economic Forum report, the pandemic drove rapid acceleration in automation and economic uncertainty, which then reshaped the division of labor between humans and machines, "leading to 85 million jobs being displaced and 97 million new ones created by 2025." Migrating the current workforce accordingly is a major undertaking.

Further, both upskilling and reskilling plans must also take into account the work performed by these new machine co-workers.

"In order to thrive in the near future, the human workforce must be able to assimilate with its digital counterpart," said Michael Griffiths, who leads Deloitte's Learning Consulting practice in North America. "As we have seen, progressive business leaders are constructing 'superteams' that pair people with technology to reimagine work."

"Once seen solely through the lens of an automation tool, artificial intelligence is now being utilized to enhance human capabilities," Griffiths said.

This new configuration places a higher urgency on skills unique to human workers: emotional intelligence, creativity, leadership and critical thinking. This human and machine pairing requires business and HR leaders to carefully rethink their upskilling and reskilling strategies.

About the author
Pam Baker is a prolific technology journalist and author of Data Divination: Big Data Strategies.

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