How to Plan and Implement a Successful Upskilling Strategy

upskilling strategy plan

The workforce is facing change and uncertainty at a greater scale and more rapid pace than ever before. Leadership must find a way to harness that change to stabilize performance and fuel productivity rather than simply enduring the ongoing chaos.

Not only that, but it’s becoming increasingly necessary to manage the consequent upheaval of this change on multiple levels. External market forces are rapidly shortening the shelf life of skills and opening up ever widening skills gaps in the talent pool.

But, internally, change is also having an impact on employee morale and their ability to remain confident, productive members of the workforce.

An upskilling strategy ensures your organization is managing change on both battle fronts. 

Plugging essential skill gaps internally means the business can keep up in terms of performance without relying on external hiring. Meanwhile, providing employees with the opportunity to further their careers and improve their skill sets boosts productivity, lowers turnover, and improves employee satisfaction rates.

The best part? While upskilling requires commitment and investment, they are one of the most cost effective ways in the long term to overcome these challenges.

Upskilling or reskilling – or both?

The terms upskilling and reskilling often go hand in hand. But there are fundamental differences between the two.

Upskilling builds on the existing knowledge and skills of employees within their current roles. It’s about ensuring employees are better equipped to do the job they already have. The business keeps pace with changes in best practices, technology, and earns competitive advantage by having the most up-to-date knowledge and skills within its workforce.

Reskilling, on the other hand, can require a higher level of investment both in terms of time and money. It requires the teaching of brand new skills to employees, often with the view of transitioning them to a brand new role within the company. 

One thing the two concepts do have in common is the analysis needed before planning and implementation. Before you contemplate an upskilling or reskilling strategy, you need to know:

  • The existing skill sets and skill levels available across the organization
  • Which business units are most in need of upskilling/reskilling from a business impact perspective
  • The availability of L&D resources to commit to the project

Upskilling is generally a much lower lift in terms of time and resources than reskilling. But even if you start with an upskilling strategy, the analysis portion of the process will still apply should you decide to implement reskilling opportunities further down the line. 

The business case for upskilling

The COVID-19 pandemic was a shock to the system for industries and businesses all over the world. But, while nobody could have foreseen exactly how these recent circumstances would unfold, the pandemic has only brought forward change that was already in the works. 

Prior to 2020, employees and organizations were already starting to address challenges that were only heightened by COVID-19, including:

  • Shorter shelf life of skills
  • Shrinking talent pools
  • Digital fluency of employees
  • Internal collaboration and communication
  • Employee expectations of internal mobility and skill progression
  • Managing remote and hybrid workforces

In fact, upskilling and reskilling were already top of mind for learning and development teams prior to 2020. In the 2019 LinkedIn Learning Workplace Report, 51% of L&D professionals said they planned to launch an upskilling program in 2020. In the following months as the pandemic came into full effect, that number rose by 15%.

However, there’s no doubt that the pandemic galvanized organizations to meet these challenges head on, even if only out of necessity. As the shock wore off, organizations have increasingly turned to talent management and learning and development to keep employees engaged and manage change.

A recent industry survey conducted by TalentLMS, Workable and Training Journal revealed further interesting insights into the need and benefit of an upskilling and/or reskilling program:

  • 42% of companies stepped up their upskilling/reskilling efforts after the coronavirus outbreak
  • 68% of companies invest in reskilling/upskilling training to handle changes within the organization 
  • 65% invest in digital upskilling/reskilling to train employees on new technologies
  • 91% of companies say upskilling/reskilling training has boosted productivity
  • 35% of employers have an official upskilling/reskilling program already in place
  • 65% of companies only deliver upskilling/reskilling opportunities on a case-by-case basis

Allowing skill gaps to go unaddressed impacts the organization in every way imaginable, from internal operations and productivity to business performance and market competitiveness.

As digital transformation progresses, it is having a monumental impact on the skills required to adapt to new ways of working and doing business. Automation and digitization are not only disrupting industries, they’re disrupting internal operations, re-shaping existing roles, and opening up a whole set of completely new roles. 

It’s estimated that by 2025, 50% of the workforce will require reskilling. The talent pool does not exist for companies to keep up with this change through external hiring. Upskilling and reskilling are essential components to managing this change in an efficient and cost-effective way.

Benefits of implementing an upskilling strategy

Boost productivity and efficiency

A lot of upskilling and reskilling training actually involves helping employees to catch up with current technologies and best practices so they can expand their capabilities or perform their current role in a more efficient way.

The proof is in the numbers, with 91% of companies and 81% of employees stating that upskilling and/or reskilling boosted productivity levels.

Improve employee retention and lower hiring costs

Upskilling the existing workforce is a significantly more cost-effective way to close the skills gaps in your organization. 

According to Deloitte’s 2019 Human Capital Trends report, reskilling an internal candidate can cost as little as one sixth compared with hiring and training an external candidate.

It’s also a cost-effective method of lowering employee turnover rates and the associated costs. In fact, 94% of Millennials would stay with a company longer if they invested more in their learning and development. 

Employer branding

Learning and development plays an important role in employee satisfaction. Candidates are assessing how well a company supports their employees across many different areas when applying for a new role and training and career progression opportunities are top of the bill.

Providing upskilling and reskilling opportunities is an effective way to enhance your reputation as an employer in order to attract and retain top talent.

Company reputation

Customers want to know that they are working with efficient and knowledgeable people. When your employees are at the top of their game, it reflects well on the organization as a whole.

Taking a look at the press that top companies have received when announcing their upskilling and reskilling programs shows just how deeply this kind of talent development strategy resonates with employees and customers alike.

12 steps for successful upskilling strategy implementation

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to implementing an upskilling program. But there are some general best practices the organization can follow to make the most out of it.

1. Asses the program structure

An upskilling program will generally fall into a larger learning and development strategy and L&D should certainly lead the charge. 

But, due to the high impact on the business, the level of investment involved, and the input required from other departments, it’s important that an upskilling and reskilling program receives championship from the highest levels in order to drive momentum.

Integrating an upskilling plan with the existing goals, learning programs, and strategies of the organization ensures that upskilling receives the attention it deserves without disrupting other long term initiatives.

2. Dedicate significant, long term investment

Upskilling employees is not something that will happen within a few months or even within a year. It will require careful planning and analysis to implement and an ongoing effort to maintain an effective upskilling program.

For organizations who are already running an upskilling/reskilling initiative, 30% said they do not have a specific budget for it. Another 12% said while they do have a set budget, it is not enough. Without a dedicated budget and championship at a senior level, the likelihood of your upskilling program falling flat rises significantly.

3. Getting people managers on board

Line managers are at the front line of driving their employees’ learning, so it’s important that they are at the forefront of rolling out an upskilling opportunity to their departments.

Having a strong relationship with stakeholders at this level and across functions such as talent development and HR ensures the results of your upskilling program are tied as closely as possible to employee performance. 

4. Leverage internal data to identify skills gaps

The first step in any upskilling and reskilling initiative will be to identify crucial skills gaps that currently exist in the organization. So it’s important that your learning and development department and others involved in the project have access to relevant internal data from which they can ascertain where to start.

5. Personalize the upskilling learning path

Personalized learning paths are nothing new to L&D, but it’s even more important to provide them when it comes to upskilling. 

While the new initiative might provide a wealth of business benefits, employees are more concerned with their own job status and career progression. Building personalization and self-directed learning into your upskilling strategy helps to ensure the greatest level of employee engagement possible.

6. Align upskilling programs with revised business strategies

As market conditions continue to shift rapidly, so have many business strategies. So, when it comes to upskilling, paying close attention to overall revisions of business objectives and strategy is a good starting point. 

It will also help you identify which business areas, revenue streams, etc. can benefit the most from an upskilling intervention. Wherever performance needs to be improved is where the skills gap analysis should begin.

7. Perform skills assessments for validation

Many employees might not be currently aware that they could benefit from upskilling and reskilling. Creating skill validation assessments can provide a more accurate picture of where upskilling is truly needed within your workforce. 

8. Make skill adjacencies a core focus

Most employees will not require complete reskilling for an entirely new role. Taking this approach would not be a cost effective way to approach the initiative either. Instead, focus on an upskilling strategy that addresses high-value skill adjacencies. 

What is the most natural move for an employee who already knows how to perform certain roles? What type of skill development makes sense based on their existing skills and experiences? By leveraging what an employee is already able to do, you’ll be able to pinpoint more high value skill development for both the employee and the business.

9. Don’t forget soft skills

There’s no denying that hard skills are critical and that they are at the core of the change that is driving L&D teams towards upskilling and reskilling programs. But soft skills are just as important to an organization’s performance and, too often, they are more of an afterthought. 

When looking at upskilling employees, particularly for leadership development, soft skills should not be forgotten. For example, identifying high performers who are on the management track and providing soft management skill training.

10. Leverage industry data

Maintaining a competitive edge is a core benefit of introducing upskilling programs. When analyzing skills gaps, look towards industry data as well as internal data to get a better picture of which gaps exist and need to be filled.

11. Focus on positions with long hiring cycles

Another good place to start is with any positions that you are struggling to fill or that constantly require new hires. These types of roles may be better filled by an existing reskilled employee and at a much lower cost.

12. Make sure it benefits the employee too

Businesses want to upskill in order to drive performance. But employees want to upskill in order to benefit their career. However, in organizations that provide upskilling/reskilling programs, employees are often not seeing the benefit of the training on their end.

Only 33% of employees said upskilling/reskilling has impacted their job level and only 35% said it impacted their salary. If employees cannot see a benefit to them within the organization, they may very well decide to take their new skills and move on somewhere else where they can see those benefits.

Planning and tracking your upskilling strategy with LearnOps technology

Careful planning and collaboration are needed to ensure an upskilling program achieves optimal impact. When learning and development teams have a lot on their plate, initiatives can get lost in the noise and it becomes difficult to keep track of progress.

With Cognota, you can manage learning programs, assets, timelines and collaborators from the initial intake process right through to deployment in a single place. See who is working on what and where each program is in the development cycle on a customizable dashboard and get insights into the demand for upskilling across the organization. Get started for free or speak with the sales team to learn more. 

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