Before you land a job, you might spend hours learning a particular set of skills to thrive in that industry and role. Once you start your first day, however, your learning should be far from over. Upskilling is when you learn new skills on the job. It can be a powerful tool for your professional growth, job satisfaction, income, and career prospects.
In this guide, we’ll walk through why upskilling is so important and how you can start upskilling. We’ll cover:
Upskilling is when you learn new job skills, either independently or from your employer.
“An employee’s ability to upskill is important because it allows an individual to grow professionally during their career as well as grow personally by learning a new skill,” Olga Eippert, director of people operations at Forage, says. “Upskilling helps employees to improve their flexibility, adaptability, productivity, and efficacy – all of which can help the employee to perform their job duties better and more efficiently. Employees who upskill themselves are more likely to succeed in their career and have better career options overall.”
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Upskilling vs. Reskilling
What’s the difference between upskilling and reskilling? While both areas are about learning new skills, they differ in what you’re learning new skills for.
Upskilling is about learning new skills to be better at your current job and in your current career path. Reskilling is when you learn new skills for a different job or function.
Companies may reskill their employees when they need to fill a hiring gap. Employees may do so when they want to change careers.
Why Is Upskilling Important?
Upskilling is a critical workplace tool for both employees and employers.
For employees, upskilling can help improve their career prospects and job satisfaction.
Growing Your Skill Set Without Getting a New Job
Generation Z is known for job-hopping. According to the National Society of High School Scholars, one of their main reasons for doing so is to upskill. A majority — 67% — of Gen Zers want to work somewhere where they can improve their skills.
>>MORE: Generation Z Workplace Statistics
Instead of leaving a job to learn new skills, you can upskill within your company. Upskilling is especially feasible if the skill aligns with your company’s business goals, fills a knowledge gap, or helps you do your job better. It’ll be easier to make a business case to your employer if you ask for resources to learn a skill they’ll benefit from.
Upskilling can make you feel more confident, capable, and productive in your role, all of which can improve your job satisfaction.
According to research from McKinsey, skills you learn on the job contribute to nearly half — 46% — of the average person’s earnings throughout their lifetime. Upskilling can help you learn the skills you need to take the next step in your career. It can help you land that promotion or higher-level role at another company, with a raise or more money in your pocket.
Protecting Your Current Role
Unfortunately, upskilling can also be a matter of survival, especially in an economic market full of layoffs and a professional world of rapidly changing technology.
>>MORE: Can You Ask About Layoffs in an Interview? Yes — Here’s How
“With a continued talent shortage, as well as rapid and continued changes in everything from software and automation, to collaboration and leadership expectations, keeping current on the skills needed is no longer just a matter of getting the top salary you want, but of being able to stay within the scope of the job you’re currently in,” Ginger Auchter, director of scientific talent at Carex Consulting Group, says. “Like a product not invested in and kept up-to-date, those that don’t stay current will find themselves passed over and trying to catch up.”
Offering upskilling opportunities is an excellent way for employers to retain talent and improve their business model.
Fills the Skills Gap
When a company is looking for specific skills to get a job done, upskilling can be a great way to fill the skills gap without hiring a new employee.
>>MORE: New Collar Jobs: Why Companies Are Prioritizing Skills Over School
“Regardless of company size, geography, or industry, employers are coming to the realization that the talent shortage is here to stay,” Auchter says. “There are very few tools companies have to overcome this, but arguably one of the fastest, easiest, and most cost-effective is to work with and upskill the great employees they already have. Upskilling is a win for the company, a win for the employee, and a win for the economy.”
Maximizing Employee Potential
“Very few — if any — companies have fully skilled people in every role in the company,” says J.R. Lowry, founder of PathWise.io, a career coaching company. “You have to be focused on strengthening the skills of your employees, to improve the effectiveness of the organization, to build bench strength, to create succession, and to enable growth. Upskilling your employees is as existential for you as an employer as it is for the employees themselves.”
Employee satisfaction isn’t just good for the employee — it can make them more productive and efficient and even improve their quality of work.
“Upskilling can further contribute to improving morale, improving employee engagement, improving employee satisfaction, and improving employee performance within an organization,” Eippert says.
Hiring and Retaining Employees
“Upskilling is both a talent acquisition and retention strategy,” says Joe Mull, employee leadership, engagement, and retention expert. “Helping employees who already know the organization add to their skill set typically comes with lower costs than attempting to recruit and onboard new talent. At a time when there are more jobs than people to fill them in nearly every industry category, upskilling programs help employers keep good people and demonstrate to potential new hires that joining the organization can lead to an evolving career path, rather than a static job with no future.”
When companies focus on upskilling their employees, they retain talent better. According to McKinsey, companies who invest in their people have attrition rates about five percentage points lower than their counterparts.
How to Start Upskilling
We know upskilling is essential not only for your career growth but it can boost your job satisfaction and income, too. But how can you upskill, even if your company doesn’t have clear upskilling opportunities?
Upskilling starts with you, not your employer encouraging you to learn new skills.
“Regardless of your level in the foodchain, figure out what you’ll likely be doing over the next few years — remember, YOU are driving the bus — and what knowledge/skills you’ll need in order to complete,” says Bill Catlette, executive coach and partner at Contented Cow Partners, a leadership development firm. “Whether it’s via employer-provided learning or secured on your own, take ownership of your upskilling. Approach your professional development in the same fashion and with the same intensity that every star athlete does!”
Consider What Skills You’d Like to Learn
There are tons of skills you can learn: digital and technology skills, business skills, hard skills and soft skills, to name just a few. So, which ones should you pursue?
“When assessing the skills you want to focus on first, take a step back and look at both your broader company, as well as the broader industry,” Auchter says. “What isn’t currently a strength but is needed for a promotion to a more senior role in your company? Also look at active job postings with companies you admire and see what is listed as a requirement for a dream role you aspire to, and would eventually like to apply for.”
>>MORE: Build workplace skills with Forage’s free virtual work experience programs.
Further, if there’s anything else your manager or coworker has commented on in your reviews, consider if there’s a skill you can learn that addresses their feedback. You can ask them what skills they find valuable or think you could benefit from.
Identify SMART Goals
You shouldn’t just set a goal to “learn X skill.” Set SMART goals and get specific about:
- What skill you want to learn
- Why this skill is important to you and your company
- When you’ll learn this skill
- How you’ll learn this skill
- How you’ll prove whether you’ve mastered the skill
>>MORE: Practice setting SMART goals in an education setting with Teach for Australia’s SMART Goals Virtual Experience Program.
Make a Business Case
If what you’re doing will require ample resources, like time out of your workday or money, you’ll need to make a business case for why you’re upskilling.
Go beyond how this will benefit you and consider the business: would this help fill a hiring gap? A knowledge gap? Could this help your company complete a task more efficiently or save money on some software?
To make your case, start by asking your manager.
“[Your manager] is going to be able to offer direction and guidance on what types of upskilling opportunities you should focus on that will advance your career,” Steven Waudby, senior recruiter at Delta Hire, says. “They will also be able to share details about any company-sponsored continued education or upskilling efforts. Additionally, when it comes time to review salaries and potential promotions, a manager will typically prioritize those who have asked for growth opportunities over those who are content with their current role and skill set.”
Believe in Yourself
It may sound cheesy, but upskilling can be difficult, especially if there’s no formal support or structure for it at your company.
“Learning a new skill is not easy, so often people shy away from learning something that they find initially difficult,” Eippert says. “To be successful in upskilling, it is important to adapt a growth mindset and view learning as something positive that gives you pleasure or helps you to grow.”
Share What You’ve Learned
What’s the point of learning a new skill if you don’t put it into practice?
“The most valuable upskilling isn’t just about taking a course or gaining a certificate, but using and honing those skills and knowledge once you get them,” Auchter says. “Actively seek out ways to practice and perfect these skills in your current role, volunteer roles, or any other opportunity you can.”
When practicing your skills, you should also track how these skills benefit you and your company. Like any other project, you want to know the results — and prove that your upskilling is making a real impact on your company.
Upskill yourself with free virtual work experiences on Forage in a variety of industries:
- Technology virtual experience programs
- Accounting virtual experience programs
- Finance virtual experience programs
- Consulting virtual experience programs
- Law virtual experience programs
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