Upskilling and Going Back To School: When, How and Why You Should

Updated December 13, 2022

Whether furloughed, unemployed indefinitely or still at work, investing in ways to make yourself more marketable and communicating your value in an economy can help you get the jobs you want and advance in your career. Especially in the wake of COVID-19’s economic upheaval, you might be considering upskilling, reskilling or maybe even going back to school.

No matter where you are on your career journey—employed, unemployed, furloughed or a new grad—upskilling is a great way to stay relevant in the workforce. By adding new proficiencies or bolstering existing skills, you add value to your marketability and make your skillset more recession-proof. In this article, we discuss when to consider upskilling, why you should and what upskilling, reskilling and going back to school look like in a post-COVID-19 economy.

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When you should upskill or go back to school

If you can, now is a great time to focus on skill-building in any capacity. Regardless of your employment status, career level, proficiencies or the industry you serve, strengthening your qualifications in a dynamic and uncertain job market like this one can only help you keep your job, get a new job or advance in your career.

When determining if it’s the right time for you to upskill and/or go back to school, consider asking yourself the following:

  1. Do you have the time?

  2. What skills or proficiencies are in-demand in your industry or profession?

  3. What skills would be beneficial to your career?

  4. Do the courses/programs cost money? Do they fit within your budget?

  5. Is your career or industry in-demand?

  6. Are you changing careers? If so, what kind of commitment will training take?

The benefits of upskilling or going back to school

Aside from the benefit you get by investing in your career trajectory, there are a number of reasons that upskilling, reskilling or going back to school is a good idea right now. Having in-demand skills can help safeguard your job through economic upheaval. Here’s why and how you can upskill strategically:

The preexisting and widening skills gap

In 2019, the Society for Human Resource Management reported that 83% of hiring managers and recruiters polled reported having trouble recruiting suitable candidates. 75% of those polled blamed a workforce skills shortage.

So, even though there were plenty of candidates for each position that they were hiring for, none of the applicants had the applicable skills that they were looking for. The employers polled cited the following hard and soft skills most absent in the job candidate pool:

Hard skills:

  • Trade skills (i.e. carpentry, plumbing, welding and machining)

  • Data analysis/data science

  • Science, engineering and medical

Soft skills:

  • Problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation and creativity.

  • Ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity

  • Communication

Recent Indeed data also showed that communication skills consistently ranked number one in the top 10 skills most commonly listed in new job postings by employers in 2020. By upskilling, you can help meet some sort of need in the economy, which can increase your chances of getting the job (and getting well-paid for it).

Related: Upskilling Your Employees: A Guide for Managers

Post COVID-19 economy shows a priority shift

Globally, companies continue to feel the impact of COVID-19 which—in addition to layoffs, downsizing and closing—has triggered redirection of business goals, needs and priorities. The demands on companies, employees and job candidates are exponentially higher.

Small and large businesses must both adapt and succeed in their current state of operations, and future-proof themselves from potential economic crises. As a result, companies require skilled and capable employees more than ever to help them recover, stabilize and develop security for the future of the business. Here are the skills that employers are looking for in their job candidates to help them meet their new objectives:

In-demand soft skills

When people think of upskilling or reskilling, they typically think of hard skills—the skills that you learn that are concrete and often technical. Building soft skills is equally as important, as they can be applied in any situation and are also transferable from job to job.

In fact, Indeed data shows that communication skills were one of the most-searched resume skills by employers in 2020. Here are several more examples of soft skills employers value in today’s economy:

  • Adaptability and flexibility: COVID-19 was a major disruption to most businesses as many had to change operations, learn to work virtually and manage reduced income and staff and do so as quickly as possible. While many have since adopted contingency plans, they need employees who can change direction and priority quickly and seamlessly.

  • Problem-solving: Just as important to a dynamic environment, problem-solving employees help create new solutions to new challenges that can arise.

  • Emotional intelligence: The impact of Covid-19 also brought a need for understanding the pain points of other companies, customers and employees and being able to work together to help one another facing the same work challenges. By understanding each other’s needs, we can all create better solutions.

  • Eager to learn/quick to learn: In an economy that is constantly in flux due to emerging technology, innovation and unforeseen setbacks, companies need employees who welcome this unpredictability by seeking to learn and adopt new ways to help the company succeed.

  • Creativity: In a constantly-changing world of challenges, companies need employees who think creatively to solve new challenges as they arise. New challenges require new solutions.

Related: Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills

In-demand hard skills

Hard skills are technical skills that are typically learned through formal training or educational programs. Here are five of the most-searched hard skills by employers in resumes in 2020 in no particular order:

  • Programming languages: Specific skill sets in programming, coding, web development and related proficiencies help companies create products, platforms, solve technical issues and more. Upskilling to learn new languages, programs and functions will make you a valuable asset, to help companies continue to work and thrive. The three languages that were most searched by employers on Indeed in 2020 were C, R and Java.

  • Sales: Technical sales skills may involve knowledge of specific sales tactics such as cold-calling, product knowledge, prospecting, qualification questioning and more. Many sales professionals should also have a working knowledge of sales or customer relationship management (CRM) platforms, such as Salesforce or Marketo.

  • Customer service: Technical customer service skills likely involve a working knowledge of CRM platforms and possibly other customer service-related technology. It may also involve knowledge of strategies for and concepts such as customer retention, lifetime value, referrals or word-of-mouth marketing and more.

  • Call center: Call center technical skills include working knowledge of a call center platform and calling techniques such as working knowledge of the program or product, cold calling and more.

  • Accounting and accounts payable: Accounting skills include but are not limited to proficiency with accounting software, preparing, examining and analyzing financial statements and records, creation and maintenance of financial reporting processes and more.

  • Maintenance and construction: Many maintenance and construction workers must be certified depending on their specialty. They must also have a working knowledge and positive record of fixing or constructing reliable structures as well as a deep knowledge and understanding of how structures work. They must also know the best products to use for any given project.

How to upskill yourself in your current career

Whether you’re employed or looking for work in your field, it might be the right time for you to upskill. Here’s how to do it:

If you’re employed...

  1. Consider your company’s pain points. Pay attention to and take notes on any gaps you notice within or outside of your team. Are there inefficient processes? Unequal distribution of work? Lack of necessary skill sets to guide and improve work? If so, gaining certain skills to resolve those pain points may be beneficial for both you and your company. For example, if you notice that your team lacks a data-minded individual who can gather and interpret metrics to guide and define strategy, you might invest in building data and analytical skills.

  2. Take stock of the skills you have. Make a list of all of your hard and soft skills and compare that with the most in-demand skills above. Consider which ones you have, which ones could be bolstered and which ones you could introduce yourself to. Brainstorm which skills, in particular, could help you improve your company and meet their pain points.

  3. Research the best accreditations, programs and courses. Once you’ve identified the best skills to focus on building, research relevant courses, videos or platforms. Ask your supervisor, research in industry forums and network with colleagues to get recommendations for recognized skill-building courses and degrees in your industry and profession. Create a list of the courses you’re interested in that you can feasibly commit to, along with costs and duration.

  4. Inquire about company upskilling programs. Reach out to your supervisor or Human Resources department to inquire about internal programs or educational opportunities. Many companies offer tuition reimbursement or professional development budgets for this purpose. If they don’t offer such a program, research courses you’d like to take and skills you’d like to learn. Then, ask if you could expense the costs. It may be an investment in the success you can bring to their company—and if not, the worst they can say is no.

  5. Make a realistic plan. Your budget and time are necessary factors to consider when deciding to upskill. Luckily, there are many opportunities for learning to accommodate both your wallet and your schedule. If you can’t afford an advanced skills program, apply for a scholarship or create a payment plan. If between work and family, you don’t have enough time to dedicate to an intensive

If you’re unemployed…

Whether you’re unemployed due to permanent layoffs or furlough, it might be the perfect time to enroll in a skills-based program or go back to school to get an advanced degree. Here’s what to do if you’re unemployed and thinking about upskilling:

  1. Invest in upskilling during your job search. Whether you’re looking for a job within your historical career path or changing careers, building skills while unemployed is a great way to stand out to employers. Doing so indicates your commitment to ongoing education and shows you’re staying productive by keeping your skillset up-to-date. If you’re changing career paths, upskilling before you get the job is a great way to show you’re already preparing to take on a new set of responsibilities.

  2. Make a list of your skills and proficiencies and compare. To determine the best skills to focus on, cross-reference your list of current skills with the skills required in the job postings you are applying to. Even if the job postings don’t specifically list problem-solving, adaptability or another in-demand skill, most employers will appreciate such skills in your application if relevant to the job.

  3. Determine how you could add value. By considering the unique nature of the economy, think about what the goals companies in your industry might be working toward. Consider their pain points and brainstorm which skills or proficiencies you could bring to help them meet those goals. Explain why your specific skillset makes you a great fit for their company and the role in your cover letter with examples.

  4. Research programs, courses and degrees. Ask colleagues, previous employers and network with professionals in your field for recommendations on the best skills courses and other educational opportunities available. Draft a list of cost and time commitments for each to decide which is best for you.

  5. Create a workable plan. Once you choose a course, certification or degree to pursue, create a schedule that outlines what you will need to do and when you will need to complete your program within your goal timeframe. It should be realistic, factoring in other necessities in your life—family, exercise, hobbies and friends—to avoid burnout.

If you’re a new grad or changing careers…

Whether you are a recent grad or looking to change careers, you’re like seeking entry-level positions and need to know where to start upskilling for your resume. Here’s how to start the process:

  1. Consider what interests you. It can be overwhelming to consider a career change, but doing so at the right time can lead to a more fulfilling work-life. Start by brainstorming jobs you might like to do, industries that excite you and tasks you both enjoy and are good at. Your list might also include volunteer activities, clubs, hobbies or other extracurricular activities. Take time to consider what interests you and which careers may offer the opportunity to employ some of the same tasks, responsibilities or skillsets.

  2. Consider priorities. If you’re flexible on occupation and industry and consider salary, schedule or job security more important, you should research salary estimates, work/life balance careers and trending in-demand and emerging economic trends, respectively.

  3. Make a list of the skills or education that might be transferable. Lots of professions share transferable skills—especially soft skills like critical thinking or collaboration—which can help lay a solid foundation for any education you might need to acquire.

  4. Analyze trending industries and in-demand skills. It’s always a good idea to ensure that what you want to do is in-demand, as it makes you more marketable now and more likely to get and keep employment in the future. That is not to say that you shouldn’t go after your dream job if it’s not on the list of emerging industries and careers. It may, however, help you gauge how difficult a specific job might be to obtain and sustain.

  5. Reach out to people in the field. Ask around in your professional and personal network to find contacts that could help you learn more about your intended career and what kind of investment it takes to get there. If you are a new grad, this could be a campus advising center or alumni database. Ask for an informational interview to get insight into the career trajectory, required skills and education and job satisfaction in your desired field.

  6. Consider financial and time logistics. Once you know what career you want, research the best programs and courses to earn the most commonly required skills. Consider cost, duration and estimated time requirement. Take into account your income and other responsibilities (family, friends, exercise, etc.) to see if it is a feasible plan.

    Remember that even the most demanding programs often have self-paced or less-intensive alternatives that might be more realistic for your situation. Moreover, valuable education usually comes at a high cost, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to help you tackle the cost. Do your research on grants, scholarships and free programs. They exist, but sometimes you just need to dig deeper to find one that will meet your specific needs.

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Tips to remember when upskilling

No matter what your career status or background, upskilling can be an intimidating consideration but most often, education is invaluable because it’s an investment in your future. Here are some additional tips to remember while upskilling:

1. Preliminary research will always serve you well

Whether you are thinking about taking an online course in your field or going back to school for a new discipline entirely, nothing serves you more thoroughly than in-depth research. Go online, visit forums, ask friends, read books and attend conferences and informational seminars. All the insight you gain from comprehensive research will help you make the best career decisions.

2. Education does not have to be cost-prohibitive, face-to-face or time-consuming

Education comes in many forms and does not have to be too expensive or require intensive study. As technology and society have evolved together, colleges and online learning programs understand the value of both a work-life balance and affordability. Most institutions offer payment options and scholarships, as well as self-paced, low-residency or virtual and part-time education.

Some universities, online course websites and non-profits offer a long list of free courses, to both help the future of our economy and to teach topics that they are excited about. Here is just a sample:

  • Stanford Credentials

  • Harvard Online Courses

  • MIT OpenCourseWare

  • Until the end of December 2020: Coursera

3. Learning does not have to be traditional

There are a number of alternatives to traditional face-to-face or virtual courses. Offered as both paid and free, educators and industry experts conduct webinars, conferences, networking events, podcasts and virtual events to teach methods, proficiencies, skill sets and ways of thinking. A simple search online will most likely give you a list of available courses and events (in various event types) on the topic you are interested in.

4. Staying current within your industry is key

While the economy is in flux and emerging technology is a new constant, so are the needs of your industry and profession. To ensure that you are in-step with those needs, it's helpful to stay current. You can do this by subscribing to websites, podcasts and newsletters in your industry and profession.

5. Networking is priceless

The truth is that the more people you know, the more knowledge, perspective and opportunity you can gain. You should always be trying to nurture relationships with current personal and professional contacts and reach out for new ones. Knowing people also brings more direct benefits like knowledge of and consideration for job opportunities. Learn more in our Complete Guide to Networking.

6. Learning is not finite

Once you complete a valuable course, gain an esteemed certification or achieve an advanced degree, you should feel accomplished, but your learning should not stop there. As technology, the economy, your industry and company evolve, so should your skills. Regularly signing up for courses, seminars and training not only increases your work value but also contributes to your sense of worth, accomplishment and overall career satisfaction.

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