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How HR can upskill workforce

So, together with your colleagues, you are thinking about approaching upskilling in your company. Perfect timing, I must admit! As the future of the workforce progresses towards the gig economy, it becomes obvious companies should focus on rapid upskilling and reskilling initiatives, custom-tailored to the current needs. Previously, it was common to apply legacy training programs or annual skills gaps analysis. However, these methods don’t do the trick anymore if used inconsistently.

Here’s a ready strategy on how HR can upskill workforce :

  • Set the goals.
  • Analyze the skills gaps in your departments.
  • Understand the career goals and motivations of your employees.
  • Decide who needs upskilling and who could be reskilled.
  • Design learning programs for various career paths.
  • Decide on learning technology.
  • Foster continuous learning in your company culture.
  • Stay up to date as the skills demand in your company change.

If you want to get a better understanding of how to upskill your employees, let’s dive into details further in this article.

What does upskilling mean in business?

The upskilling definition is a process of acquiring new skills within the same domain. Digital transformations caused changes in the way organizations manage their human capital. Among others, they brought the efficient use of data; a customer-centric business model, and a desire to achieve “more with less” for the benefit of customers, employees, and shareholders. The changes will enhance as the economy shifts to a gig market with its short-term employment contracts. To get some great examples of upskilling, check here.

Why upskill?

To upskill or not to upskill – that’s the question… Actually, it shouldn’t be the one. Pandemia amplified the need for employees to stay up to date with the job market and to be proactive in gaining knowledge. Those companies who fail to deliver, lose their workforce.

You can easily estimate the need for upskilling within your business by raising these questions: How well do business leaders know their staff? Are they confident about people’s flexibility in their job activities?

Benefits of upskilling employees

Upskilling initiatives are win-win for both companies and their coworkers. If taken seriously, these efforts will result in:

Better retention rates, enhanced employee engagement, and productivity in the workplace. A solid upskilling program creates a long-term vision for working at your organization. Employees will consider you as a partner in achieving their career expectations. Upskilling your employees delivers not just new skills, but also renews enthusiasm and therefore productivity.

Improved cost management and accurate data on internal HR needs. Upskill your employees and watch the costs of recruiting, hiring, and training replacements melt. Besides, what if your company already has the needed talent, although it’s allocated to the wrong job? Sometimes we just need to rotate a few puzzles to complete the entire picture.

Planning workforce strategically. Do you have enough in-house skills for the job or a new project? Data analysis which is focused on in-house talents will give you an overview of how many employees you can count for a particular task, what is the skill demand coverage and the seniority ratio.

Robust recruitment process. Upskilling your employees will attract better talents and can be used as a recruiting tool. Considering that every job applicant checks employee reviews before submitting their application, you want to make sure people share positive moments about your organization. As a result, an effective upskilling program reduces the time spent on the recruitment process and even helps to dominate the job market. Positive reviews from current or former colleagues raise the chances to attract new employees and create a solid talent pool for upcoming job openings.

Employee upskilling benefits all business areas.

Upskilling Vs. reskilling: which to choose?

The short answer is: it depends on the demanded skill sets.

Upskilling is a process that helps a specialist to pursue the same field of expertise. Let’s say, a junior developer wants to become a regular one, and learn other technical skills. The development program for this workforce would be upskilling, same as soft skills acquisition.

Reskilling is a way for a specialist to change their field of expertise to a similar one. For example, if your team needs to cut on accountants, you can reskill them to sales specialists. In case you got more interested in cross-training and reskilling the existing workforce, read here about Amazon’s experience.

HR professionals can apply a hybrid approach to employee development. An accountant doesn’t need to shift completely to sales if there’s no such need; they can, however, learn some selling techniques that will complement their main area of knowledge.

Digital upskilling Vs. mentorship

Choosing the right learning format is as important as setting goals. Do employees work remotely or onsite? What would be the comfortable time frame? How many people will use the learning programs? What budget can the company allocate for training?

There are several learning formats you can choose from. These include hiring an instructor, mentorship, peer-to-peer learning, online learning, cross-training, or job rotation. Since the digital revolution, it became a good tradition for most companies to choose online employee learning. Statistics back up its benefits: eLearning increases learning retention rates by between 25% and 60%, compared to traditional learning retentivity rates of 8% to 10%. No surprise I was poor in geography back in the school times! ?

What are the steps to upskill successfully?

Set the goals

First and foremost, decide together with the senior management, what type of skills are needed – are these just soft skills or interpersonal ones, hard skills in a particular profession, or digital skills? If you chose more than one, make sure you don’t mix them into one huge, useless and demotivating training program.

Then, set the measurable objectives. Upskilling could increase the retention rate by 50% or decrease the project costs by 30%. Align the upskilling goals with the business’ OKR.

Identify skills gaps in your company

Skills gaps impact our daily operations: a software house may lack senior developers to fill the existing role, so managers narrow their focus to closing the current gap. Identifying the skills gap is not only about the obvious needs for today – it’s important to think about the skills you’ll need in the future, not just right now.

It makes sense to begin the skills gap analysis with the skills inventory. If you never really did that, check our post on how to get started with skills inventory.

Conduct the skills gap analysis

Identifying and closing skill gaps are the most challenging parts of the process. They require engaging all levels of the organization in highlighting the problem, backing it up with enough data, brainstorming, and implementing the solution.

Since organizations usually lack particular skill sets, it’s best to invest in every skill with a clear understanding of the target. What knowledge within a job your organization will need in 5 years? Once you have a clear vision, get to the skills assessment.

Assess the current level of the employee skills

There’s nothing more important for bridging the skills gap than consistent skills assessment. In the micro context, this process may reveal gaps within your current teams. On the macro level, it may also uncover skills gaps in the entire company that you were previously not aware of. The analysis can tell you where in your company skills development will have the biggest impact. 

Consider some of the popular skills assessment methods:

Performance reviews. Performance evaluations and employee assessments are easy to conduct but beware that self-assessment questionnaires might be subjective.

Conversations with key frontline managers. Middle-rank managers are always ready to share their perspectives with HR teams on the critical skills of specialists. Just remember, that the given characteristics will depend a lot on the personal relationship between the manager and their colleague.

Skills scraping. You could use professional networks to gather data about skills based on profiles with similar job titles outside your organization.

At this step, your company needs to add data to a database. A pro tip: pay closer attention to applications that store such skills databases – a simple excel file might bring some quick results, but will be completely unmanageable in the long run.

Understand the career goals and motivations of your employees

Creating a training program and closing the skills gap requires the following steps: quantifying the skills of prospective employees, measuring their career achievements, and asking employees about their personal and professional aspirations.

The best way to bring value to your specialists is to ask them about their expectations. Although getting personal with colleagues may be difficult, there’s no other approach. Use the time during one-on-one meetings, team building, or lunch breaks to ask people “how do you like to work?”

Additionally, learn about types of rewards that motivate your people to take action. An all-around company reward system might not be stimulating everyone on the same level. It’s in our nature to act with the desired outcome in mind, and many employers can use the employee’s motivation to their advantage. However, the idea of what the “desired outcome” means is very personal, so gathering such insights might be a game changer.

Design learning programs to close the skills gaps

If you are still estimating upskilling opportunities, people may enroll in the many formal upskilling programs offered by HR. If a program is not currently offered, your HR professionals could consider it for future training development.

To get employees onboard with the idea of upskilling, organizations need to emphasize the importance of upskilling for the future progression of employees’ careers. One way to achieve this is to build certain skills into employees’ annual goals and learning objectives.

Foster continuous learning as your company culture

Learning culture in terms of The Corporate Executive Board (CEB) is an environment that supports an open mindset, and that shares learning directed toward organizational mission and goals.

Upskilling is a continuous process that allows human resources to discover growth opportunities at every stage of their professional journey. When introduced consistently and with unlimited access, it enables employees to grow at their own pace. Below you can see how Deloitte’s report covers the correlation of in-house growth opportunities with the rapid pace of organizational development.

Deloitte proves that continuous learning boosts business results.

There are several strategies that you will find useful to foster a culture of continuous learning. Firstly, make it social. Partnership-based learning is a great opportunity to stimulate brainstorming and knowledge exchange, and it drives employee engagement.

If you haven’t yet, introduce the hybrid work model and watch how people find more time and energy to upskill. Since we all have different learning styles, blending training solutions into different working styles will increase the results of the upskilling effort.

Match jobs and rotate staff

In some cases, learning initiatives focus on obtaining soft skills, e.g., critical thinking or negotiation skills, which can be applied to the same job. But, most of the time, when we’re talking about development programs that bridge the skills gap, our planned outcome is to rotate employees inside the organizations. Yes, the upskilled workforce may lack experience or professional seniority, yet they should try practicing new skills.

Many organizations apply artificial intelligence to promote employee rotation. On one hand, it elaborates different learning styles and, on the other hand, improves internal talent management systems.

Use the power of people analytics to steer the upskilling efforts

According to McKinsey survey, 2021, companies appear to struggle most with the practices related to the infrastructure and delivery of skilling efforts. For instance, just 23 % of all respondents whose companies have started a skill transformation say that they have implemented dynamic tracking of the workforce’s performance and overall impact on the business. This means that only about one-third of the large businesses track how employee learning and upskilling impacted their business in numbers and figures.

At EmployPlan, we present the analytical part of skill transformation. It ensures that your workforce develops their skills in alignment with the business needs. HR leaders get systematized knowledge about current employees’ skill set together with the latest data on their skills growth. For HR business partners, we help align an organization’s “people strategy” with their “business strategy” by showing the skills demand coverage across the entire organization.

Completing the upskilling training is great, but how did it impact organizational goals? Most companies struggle to measure it. EmployPlan solves the problem.

AI drives employee engagement during the training program

It’s been said a lot about data science and AI being great tools for amplifying overall employee engagement. Why not use them during upskilling programs? We at EmployPlan discovered an easy way to stimulate employees’ career development. People are more eager to acquire new skills when they a) see other people successfully completing training and b) get publicly recognized for their own training results. As a result, our Slack integration kills two birds with one stone – the chat notifications tell teams about their people’s development progress every time someone completes a project, training etc. This allows employees to be more motivated to get ahead and helps managers increase team engagement and productivity on projects without extra effort.


  1. https://hbr.org/2022/01/how-to-build-a-successful-upskilling-program
  2. https://www.forbes.com/sites/markcohen1/2019/09/03/upskilling-why-it-might-be-the-most-important-word-in-the-legal-lexicon/?sh=1f8eb44036a9
  3. https://www.pwc.com.au/digitalpulse/strategic-upskilling-staff.html
  4. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/the-organization-blog/using-skill-gap-assessments-to-help-future-proof-your-organization
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/jun/22/skills-gap-small-business-qualified-staff
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