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Why Upskilling and Reskilling is essential to business survival

Flemming Goldbach, Product Management Leader - SaaS Enterprise Software

Long before the pandemic, employers were recognizing the need for continuous skilling in order to stay ahead/on top of emerging technologies. As the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work pointed out in 2019, “today’s skills won’t match the jobs of tomorrow, and newly acquired skills may quickly become obsolete.”

The half-life of professional skills was once 10-15 years. Today, the half-life of a learned skill (critical thinking, collaboration, communication) is five years, and it’s even shorter for technical skills. That means skills need to be updated on an ongoing basis. There is a lot of talk about reskilling and upskilling, and it can be difficult to navigate the differences. What makes these more than just two sides of the same coin? And how, as a leader, do you determine which is the best fit for your employees?

Evaluating upskilling versus reskilling
Put simply, the difference between these two terms is the difference between evolution and revolution.

Upskilling represents an evolution of a person’s career path and skills. You may have a large enterprise with a warehouse that you’re now automating. Think about the software developers you already had. They specialized in building automated processes for this – but now they need to learn how to actually build software that can listen to signals from robots and the Internet of Things and integrating those signals into the process. So, it’s not an entirely different position or career path; it’s just adding a level of specialization on top of their regular position.

If a job role is shifting entirely sideways, that’s reskilling. For example, imagine that you are part of a large organization that has decided to invest in automating all of the warehouse operations. It would likely mean that a large portion of your warehouse workforce would now be made obsolete. In that case, you could decide to reskill some of this workforce and help them develop technical skills. They would receive training on developing software or configuring software to optimize these automated robots when operating the warehouse. This would be a total revolution of that person’s career path.

Where upskilling fits in
When it comes to the importance of upskilling, the reasons are fairly obvious. It is important for organizational growth. It’s key to maintaining and growing productivity, but it’s also important for keeping employees engaged and interested. And there is a growing acknowledgement of this need.

Upskilling can occur on a micro and macro scale. It can be something smaller, like learning a new technology solution or tool that the company has invested in. Or it can be part of a much larger effort, like incorporating cloud and AI skills into the repertoire of employees in alignment with corporate initiatives. For instance, in October, Amazon announced a $700 million upskilling initiativefor its workforce. This benefits the company by raising up more skilled workers from within its existing ranks.

Why reskilling matters
As mentioned, reskilling represents a revolution in which employees are suddenly doing something completely different. Think about the Industrial Revolution, for instance, when a huge portion of industries quickly transitioned from manual processes to machines. Hand looms were replaced by mechanical ones, for instance.

In a recent McKinsey Global Survey, 87% of executives were either experiencing skills gaps in their workforce or expected them within a few years. However, less than half of them were clear about what actions to take to overcome the problem. This is where reskilling in particular can play a significant role. Talent is hard to find, but rather than looking to hire from outside the organization, more businesses can look to hiring from within and developing new skills within the existing workforce.

Not only does this help bridge those gaps but it can also go a long way towards fostering a supportive employee culture when employees feel their company has a vested interest in their growth. This is true for upskilling as well, of course; Amazon is surely engendering a lot of good will with its initiative.

Reskilling also helps organizations hold on to the kind of institutional knowledge that can’t always be as easily taught. For instance, those warehouse workers mentioned earlier probably have a lot of core knowledge about the products their company makes, and the processes involved. That kind of core knowledge can be a major asset in their new roles, while the organization retains it “brain trust.”

Reskilling will be especially important in the post-pandemic world. McKinsey & Co.advised organizations back in May to start reskilling their workforces in order to emerge stronger from the pandemic. Many organizations had to rapidly transform this year, building necessary skills and competencies just to survive. Yet, COVID-19 has added to the reskilling challenge. Delivering training and continuing education in an engaging way is often difficult from a remote setting.

Train and thrive
Both upskilling and reskilling are extremely important for business success as the world changes rapidly. But which one to pursue depends entirely on context. Does your organization, or a section of it, require evolution or revolution? Employers need to evaluate company goals in conjunction with employee career goals. Are employees willing to learn the specific skills your organization needs?

If so, how will you train them from afar? Part of the upskilling and reskilling challenge lies in finding the right learning tools to engage learners and foster retention. All these elements must converge in order for companies to not just survive the pandemic but truly thrive through it and into what comes next.

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