Upskilling Your Employees: Practical Tips

As a business owner, you know that emerging technology and shifting customer demands result in change in an industry. Upskilling—teaching employees additional skills—is one way to keep up. By creating an agile workforce and a culture that embraces continuous learning and development, you can help set up your company for success.


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What is upskilling?

Upskilling is the process of building skills to meet the changing needs of the market—usually, through training, professional development or new assignments.


There’s more than one way to define upskilling; some businesses view the process as a way to fill skill gaps in their workforce. Others see it as a way to transform employees’ skills completely in reaction to or anticipation of shifts in the industry.


On a larger scale, upskilling can be a survival strategy for businesses. Technology and digitization can transform industries, seemingly overnight. Rather than hiring new people to meet these needs, some businesses opt to train their existing employees.

Why is upskilling important?

Upskilling is important because can help your workers and business succeed. Employees learn new skills, free of charge. The new challenge keeps them engaged, and the additional abilities make them more marketable when it’s time for a promotion.


Your company foots the bill for skills training, but the benefits easily outweigh the costs. Investing in your employees helps build loyalty and increases job satisfaction. Your team will feel appreciated and valued, which translates to better morale and an improved company culture. Happier employees tend to be more productive, more innovative and less likely to leave.


By opting to upskill your employees, you can reduce the costs associated with recruiting, hiring and onboarding new workers. What’s more, you’ll retain your current workforce’s institutional knowledge, and it’s impossible to put a numerical value on this insight and experience.


Other potential benefits of upskilling employees include:


  • Faster company growth
  • Increased profits
  • Improved efficiency
  • An adaptable, confident workforce

Is your company looking to improve recruitment and retention? Upskilling could be the key. In response to a Gallup study, 57% of employees expressed an interest in updating their professional skills. What’s more, 48% would be willing to leave their current job for a new one that included skills training. Fulfilling that need can help keep existing employees happy and make it easier to attract new talent.

How to upskill your employees

All employee upskilling programs require you to strike a balance between training and everyday operations. Consider your resources, current business volume and how urgently the new skills are needed. As you map out a strategy for your business, keep these tips in mind:


1. Ask employees for feedback

Kick off your upskilling initiative by talking to your employees. Ask them questions like:


  • What skills would help you be more productive or efficient at your job?
  • What skills are you interested in building?
  • Can you identify any technologies or programs that would improve our operations?

This process achieves two key goals. First, it gets your team excited about the possibility of training and development. Second, it gives you a chance to hear valuable insights and ideas from employees. With that information, you can create a training plan that interests workers and benefits the business.


Related: Employee Satisfaction Surveys: What They Are and Why They’re Important for Your Business


2. Identify the company’s needs

Evaluate your company’s current skills, capabilities, technologies and operations. How are they falling short of industry standards and customer demands? Looking forward, how can you better position the business to succeed in the face of new developments? Identify weaknesses, gaps and opportunities—then, look for ways to use employee upskilling to improve your company’s prospects.


If your company is facing an imminent market shift, your upskilling priorities may be clear. If you have more time, it’s helpful to find the overlap between your employees’ interests and your company’s training needs. That way, it’s easier to harness the team’s enthusiasm to benefit the business.


3. Assess employees’ current skills

As you’re considering upskilling possibilities, use your employees’ natural talents and abilities as a guide. When your employees are using their strengths on a daily basis, research from Gallup shows that they’re six times more likely to feel engaged in the workplace.


What does that mean for you as an employer? There’s no need to force employees into skills training to shore up their weaknesses—the company will benefit more if you allow them to build on their strengths. If you have a marketing employee who’s talented in graphic design, you might invest in an animation or digital illustration course. Employees with a natural talent for coding might thrive in CSS, JavaScript or SQL classes.


4. Implement employee upskilling programs

Once you have a list of ideas for upskilling, it’s time to implement them. Some options are:


  • Offer “lunch and learn” opportunities. Host seminars, presentations or panel discussions at midday. Invite employees to bring their lunch to a conference room and eat while they learn. Involve company leadership when possible, and encourage employees to ask questions—they’ll appreciate the insight into the inner workings of the business. This is an opportunity to open the lines of communication between executives, managers and employees.
  • Create a mentorship program. Experienced employees can serve as mentors while building the management, communication and guidance skills that will help them move into leadership roles in the company. At the same time, lower-level workers can advance their careers with the help of their mentors’ knowledge, experience and insight. Your business can benefit from stronger relationships, increased collaboration and a positive company culture.
  • Sign up for conferences. Send employees to conferences that relate to their jobs and the industry as a whole. Encourage them to attend lectures, participate in workshops and network with other professionals. Your employees can come back to work with renewed enthusiasm and a wealth of knowledge.
  • Bring in trainers. Do you need to upskill an entire department or your whole workforce on the same topic? Hire trainers for classroom-style or hands-on education. The group dynamic can add an element of fun to dry or complex subjects.
  • Host webinars: Affordable and easy to access, webinars are ideal for self-paced learning. Your executives or high-level workers can create these sessions, and employees can review the content as needed to answer questions and refresh heir knowledge.
  • Offer professional development courses: Set a price ceiling and pay for your employees to attend online courses or classes at a local college. This is an easy way to implement targeted skill-building at the individual level.
  • Assign new responsibilities at work. Let employees learn on the job by assigning projects or tasks that require new skills. Workers get an exciting new challenge, and you can maintain productivity. This can be a good solution if you’re on a tight budget or have self-motivated employees.

Related: How to Start a Mentor Program


5. Make upskilling part of company culture

Upskilling is most effective when it’s woven into the fabric of company life. When your company focuses on continuous education and training, it becomes an expectation. Soon, workers will start identifying areas for growth and presenting ideas that move the company forward—this is when the benefits of employee upskilling can start to have an impact on your bottom line.


Related: 5 Steps to Creating an Effective Training and Development Program

Potential roadblocks in the upskilling process

While you’re developing an upskilling program, you’re almost certain to encounter roadblocks. Unsurprisingly, the two biggest challenges are often time and money—you need to find the hours to devote to employee training and the funds to pay for it. This can be particularly challenging for smaller companies.


In the beginning, you may need to find work-arounds. Some companies start with on-the-job training instead of hiring outside educators. Others offer to pay for professional development if employees can complete it in their free time. You might also consider scheduling training during slow periods.

Frequently asked questions about upskilling

How is reskilling different from upskilling?

Both reskilling and upskilling offer opportunities for employees to grow within an organization. However, when an employee reskills, they undergo training in preparation for a promotion or a lateral job move. When they upskill, they build skills and abilities that can help them to grow within their current role. Although there’s some overlap between the two, upskilling allows a worker to develop talents that can qualify them for the next rung on the career ladder.


How can you measure upskilling?

Employee performance reviews are one way to measure the success of an upskilling program, and an opportunity to evaluate how they’ve applied their new skills. You might also consider observing the employee in action to see how they’re using newly gained skills in a practical setting.


Some upskilling initiatives lend themselves well to quantitative measurement, where all you need to do is identify and measure key performance indicators (KPI) for the given skill. For example, if you train an employee to use a new software program, you might track how much faster they accomplish standard tasks.


Why do companies upskill employees?

Companies might turn to upskilling for many reasons. Common motivations include:


  • Downsizing has created skill gaps in the workforce
  • Changing technology has rendered employees’ current skill sets obsolete
  • The company has invested heavily in new apps, equipment or software
  • New clients have requested a wider scope of work
  • Legal regulations have changed compliance requirements
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